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Thursday, April 29, 2021

The Trifecta

I'm going to meander through some ideas here. As usual, built on ideas about photographs of the sort I like, of the sort that I think are essentially photographic in some sense. A photograph can be anything you like, of course. My preferred form is photography, specifically, as an analogue of seeing, as nearly a kind of seeing.

Let us return to Berger's conception of Realism (after Lukács) in which an artwork is an example of Realism when it, by a kind of synecdoche, indicates a totality, a whole world or reality, by detailed exposition of a part, a fragment. The day in the man's life, carefully described, reveals something of the man's total life.

Naturalism, also per Berger, is relegated to merely an intense degree of hyper-detail, perhaps drawn from life. Realism thus construed may or may not be Naturalistic.

Photographs are by their nature Naturalistic, and when they are working well I contend that they exemplify Realism in this sense.

We see this kind of idea popping up here and there. Edward Weston's search for the essence of the thing, Barthes' invocation of eidolon with respect to photography, are at least related ideas. Somehow the photograph distills (or ought to distill) something essential from the subject, and by that process, stand in for the totality (Barthes again: "blind field.")

At the same time, though, we have strong undercurrents of both Impressionism and Expressionism which crop up.

Late Victorian photographers cribbed directly from Impressionist painters and explicitly made photographs that were philosophically Impressionistic. They were supposed to leave upon the viewer the "impression" of the subject, to strike the viewer in a certain way. A little later Stieglitz makes his Equivalents which are pretty explicitly Expressionism: they are to express the emotional state of the photographer. They are to transfer to the viewer not the input, the impression, but rather the emotional result, the expression.

Ansel Adams goes on and on about how photographs should, ultimately, be the expression of the photographer's response to the scene. This is, again, bare-faced Expressionism.

As an aside, that Weston and Adams are lumped together strikes me increasingly as wildly absurd. Adams is philosophically Expressionist, but his pictures are powered by pure Romanticism. If you added a model in a diaphanous white dress with fairy wings to almost any of his photos, she'd fit right in. Which is why many of his modern admirers in fact hire models, and own fairy wings. A model in wings will dress up any waterfall photo. Weston, on the other hand, had no truck with such shit. His pictures are as Romantic as nail. Weston and Adams get lumped together only because they espoused similar technical methods, which is insane.

My thinking goes like this:

Photographs partake, inherently, in Bergerian Realism. The create a kind of presence. This leads, inevitably, to an Impression. You are there, but not really. You're filling the world around the photo, in a kind of blurry memory-like fashion. Whatever the photograph actually looks like, it acts in a way that combines Realism with Impressionism.

You could probably argue that any Bergerian Realism acts this way, and maybe you'd be right. I myself am not sure. Does a literary realism, in which a detailed account of a man's day stands in for his life, work as if mediated through an impression? I am not sure. The photo, though, I am confident about. What you make of the photo, inside your own head, is the fuzzy painting that somehow encompasses all water lilies in all ponds on all warm days. At least when the photograph is working well.

When we look at Florence Thompson in Lange's photo, we form an impression of the pea picker's camp, an impression of Thompson's life. We can't actually see any of it, we have no knowledge of the details. How many cars are parked in the camp, and what license plate numbers do they have? Where was Thompson's last stop? Where was her next stop? We don't know any of these things, but we feel the weight of her life anyway, we feel something we imagine is the tenor of the pea picker's camp.

Realism and Impressionism are the first two pieces of the trifecta.

The last is Expressionism, the expression of the artist's feelings (or at least the viewer's sense of what the artist might have been feeling).

This is absolutely a tough nut to crack. It's no accident that it crops up as The Thing some photographer is trying to do. The first two bits kind of happen by themselves if you put in a bit of effort and have a bit of luck. The raw naturalism of the photograph powers those things — it looks so real, it just kind of does those things.

Now, do I simply mean the artist's intention? I don't think so, not really. I don't mean that the photograph becomes a sort of memo from the photographer explaining their emotions.

I mean, I think, that react to the photograph as if you had been there, as if you had photographed it. The impression produces an emotional expression which you take to be something of what the photographer might have felt.

Consider my pea-shoot photographs again:

Both photographs, of the same subject and taken perhaps a minute apart, function as photographs. They do, however, create different impressions. The first, I argue, impresses upon one the notion of a sort of unkempt bed of earth, perhaps in a mildly unkempt garden, with, uh, some sort of stuff growing. The second, I argue, impresses upon one rather more the violent upthrust of new life. Both are perfectly true.

The second one more closely expresses my emotional response to these crummy little sprouts in my crummy unkempt garden. At the same time, though, it is far less an example of realism and the impression it gives is not really accurate. The garden as a totality vanishes, at best it expresses maybe some totality of the existence of a sweet pea vine. It fails, to my mind, because it sacrifices too much. We see, maybe, the pea vine, as a kind of abstraction, separated from its environment, separated from the world. It floats in our imagination (at best) surrounded by nothing.

A successful photograph, to my mind, balances these things out.

The photograph ought to express a totality, it ought to invite the viewer into the frame to invent something fairly coherent and complete. The world of the photograph should resemble the real world, not an isolated thing, not a falsehood, neither a too-narrow tranche of the universe, nor yet a too-broad; it should resemble a right-sized world, a world suited to contain and give meaning to the subject. The pea, outside of the garden, loses something of its meaning. At the same time, we need not keep the Andromeda galaxy in mind here. The galaxy ought to be elided, but the garden perhaps ought not to be.

The impression thus formed ought to reside in the world, it ought to be well-grounded, and also definite and detailed in its own right. Neither too much of the unkempt earth around the pea shoot, nor too much of the upthrusting life of the pea shoot itself. The pea shoot should not float, alone, but live in a real-feeling, complete-feeling, imagined world.

The expression should live and breathe in harmony with the impression, and the realism. That sensation of the violent thrust of life should be well-felt, grounded on that real world of the unkempt earth, of the real albeit messy garden in which it lives.

All in balance, to create a kind of emotional reality, a depth of feeling and corresponding response.

Friday, April 23, 2021


Read any of the photographic/cultural critical types, whether it be some french weirdo with several books publications to his name, or just some morons on twitter, and you'll be left with the impression that photographs are Hugely Important.

Often there will be some sort of effort to discuss how reality and media are getting All Confused in our minds. The image really takes the place of reality in a sense while at the same time reality itself is conceived of in terms of the image.

It always seems sort of convincing when you're reading it (i.e. when you're consuming a form of media) but boy, it just takes one step out the door to realize what utter rubbish it is. Normal people haven't got the slightest difficulty distinguishing media from reality. Even in our media-saturated phone-centric modern world, lots and lots of people spend more time with reality than with media.

I love sweet peas, to distraction. I plant some ever year at the base of a makeshift trellis contraption I made out of old, busted fencing materials. The peas are sprouting now.

These little shoots are wondrous. Little fragments of striving life, soon to be masses of green and pink and white. Hopefully they will also smell good. They are easily distinguished from media of all types.

Indeed the experience of them, my experience of them, is un-photographable.

The visual experience of these little shoots is this:

Some grubby dirt. Some weeds. Some unassuming blotches of green that might be weeds themselves, but are not. It's a big nothing. It's not as if my nearly ecstatic experience of these things isn't visual, though. There's nothing else. I am not touching, smelling, hearing, or tasting these things. I am merely looking at them.

The experience is something like this, maybe:

A kind of dramatic thrusting and striving, a dynamic leap for life, for bigness.

Of course, my experience of these little nubbins of life is mainly based on a hope for the future. I look forward to my pile of sweet peas blooming their hearts out, trying to strangle, or at least survive, the feral nasturtiums that share the trellis-thing. The pea shoots are merely a symbol of the thing I really like.

But the second photograph looks nothing like the reality on the ground, which looks like the first one.

Reality is just so much richer, so much deeper, so much more stimulating and vibrant, even a shitty little weedy thing growing out of some grubby dirt strikes me more powerfully than any photograph ever could.

I don't have a lot of trouble with reality versus "the image" and, if we are honest with ourselves, almost nobody does. It's just a thing Very Clever people like to say. Sometimes even this Very Clever fellow.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Consent and Ethics, Again, Yay!

In appropriate circles, the pseudo-academics are murpling away again about "consent, so critical, don'tyouknow" because Steve McCurry's famed photo of the Afghan Girl (Sharbat Gula) is somehow or other back in the press, blah blah blah whatever. They're all mainly signalling to one another that they know the True Story and that they hate McCurry (who is pretty hateable.)

As usual, though, there's nothing useful being actually said about consent. It's just the usual chin-wagging and muttering, congratulations all around aren't we a clever lot?

McCurry grew up in a tradition of photography into which was built the unstated proposition that the photograph is completely separate from the subject. There is no relation between them. The photo merely records appearance and that is the end of it.

Contemporary academic thinking is, as those of us who pay attention know, a mere hairsbreadth from "the picture literally steals the person's soul." There's a certain amount of dancing around, because it turns out that when I take pictures I am not stealing anyone's soul, it's when you take pictures that this extremely violent act occurs. Explanations are so obvious as to be left to the reader, naturally.

As a corollary, you should pay your subjects handsomely, but I am mysteriously under no such obligation.

Neither McCurry's nor the contemporary pseudo-academic's positions reflect current mainstream social reality. Current social reality includes a vague discomfort with being photographed, with photographs of the self, and so on. The 1970s concept conflicts with this one, and it cannot stand. These are all social constructs, social reality is the relevant reality. At the same time, almost nobody believes in soul-stealing in photos, and current social reality also encompasses a lot of comfort with being photographed, and with photographs of the self. The difference between comfort and not-comfort is one of nuance and degree, it is personal, it is social. It's not simple.

The 1970s/McCurry idea, though, is at least built on a model of how photographs work. While the details are not all worked out, one essential mechanic is pretty clear: the photograph does not touch the subject, it is completely distinct and separate from the subject.

This is, to be honest, a pretty sound position. It is quite difficult to argue into existence some kind of relationship, some kind of persistent connection, between the photo and the subject. I have given it a shot on a couple of occasions. Here for instance, and here. The best that I have been able to do is to construct a fairly attenuated, essentially social, connection.

The McCurry idea is wrong, and we feel that it is wrong. Indeed, it is because we feel it to be wrong that it is wrong. Social reality is reality, for these purposes. Putting that feeling onto a workable basis, from which we might develop some ideas, has proven to be a bit of effort. I like to think I've made some headway on it, though.

Contemporary thinking completely lacks any model of any kind. It appears to be built on pure emotion, combined with a fairly obvious, deeply venal, desire to simply condemn any photographers the speaker deems too successful and to attempt to create space for the speaker to be paid more to take photographs.

It's very depressing, and more people should read my essays.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

On People

I'm going to write a bunch about people and, probably, media. But this post isn't super-photo centric. I read Jonathan Blaustein's column on aPhotoEditor pretty regularly, and his most recent is more or less the same kind of thing this week (usually he's talking more about photos) and it's a good read: "How We Got Here." My remarks here are something of a response, and something of a summary of a bunch of things I've been thinking over the last year or so.

We humans have a lot of conflicting impulses in us. We want to fight, we want to flee. We want to approach, to back away. We want to follow, we want to lead. We want to give up, we want to build. We want to build, we want to destroy. And so on, on and on. At the same time we're constantly subjected to a near infinity of stimuli, external and internal. We're hungry, there's a muffin on the counter, we know our wife wants that muffin to eat later. What do we do?

A stimulus that produces one response now can produce the opposite response later, even in circumstances that appear the same. We grow, we learn, subtle changes occur, and the whole system is extremely unstable. We are, more often that not, balanced on a knife's edge between one response and another.

A science fiction novelist named C.J. Cherryh wrote a series of books referred to as the Chanur Saga, the details of which do not matter here. In it, there is an alien race called the Kif. The dominant factor in their society is a thing call sfik which is kind of like honor. You earn it through your actions, high-sfik people can "give" it to you through their actions, and so on. It is like honor, but stripped down to a basic quality of winning. The Kif seem to have a near-biological sensitivity to sfik and a nearly insurmountable compulsion to follow the shifts. If the leaders of a faction are perceived to lose sfik, the Kif of that faction will butcher them wholesale and join the other side. This is normal and expected.

Naturally, this is a slightly jazzed up version of what actual humans actually do. We love strong leaders, and follow them willingly, because they're winners.

Note this: one the major stimuli for both Kif and humans is our perception of what the people around us think, and will do. Whether it's sfik or election momentum, we want to throw our lot in with whoever everyone else is backing. We want to be on the winning team, the team all our friends are on.

Donald Trump, O.J. Simpson, and the leaders of whatever dictatorship you choose to name, all have sfik. Whether they earned it, or whether it is granted to them by circumstance, luck, cronies who surround them, by the junta, it doesn't matter. They have it. They have the property of perceived winningness that makes some, many, people follow them no matter who absurd the story is.

Set these ideas aside and think of the same things in a different way:

We humans are not logical, we are not reasoning animals. We are capable of reason, but as a rule we do not reason. What we are is inspiration machines.

We exist in our environment, and constantly integrate a million subtle cues into some kind of worldview. Every now and then we get an inspiration. We're integrating clues, and by some poorly (albeit partly) understood mechanism, answers pop out seemingly spontaneously:

There are grubs in that log, we should turn it over.
Water behind that hill, half a day's walk.
Lions nearby.

And so on and so forth. I dare say that in our hunter-gatherer origins this integration/inspiration engine worked tolerably well. Not perfectly, I am sure, but well enough, which is all evolution demands. In the present day it is frankly a mess. The same machine is operating, but the inputs make no sense to the machine. We're looking at screens. We hearing people say things that mean nothing to the hunter-gatherer brain, about "Russia" and "the economy" whatever those are. We live inside buildings, inside cities, where none of the stimuli make any sense. Our brain is still trying to figure out whether there are grubs around, but what we need are answers to "who should I vote for?" and "should I invest in cryptocurrency?"

To be quite fair, the inspiration machine is not specific to grub-and-water finding. It's a general purpose inspiration machine. Nevertheless, the modern world rather taxes the thing.  

Mindfulness in the western-Buddhism sense, as well as inductive logic, strike me as related. These are formalisms that attempt to capture the way we normally operate, in much the same way deductive logic is a formalism that attempts to capture another aspect of how we think. None of these things actually reflects the complexity of what's going on in our heads, though.

At the end of the day, our brains are ferociously complex chaotic dynamical systems which contain state, which absorb stimuli, and which spit out actions and responses from time to time. Trying to truly characterize its operation in simple terms is doomed to failure.

This doesn't mean that we're helpless, of course. Simplified models (like mindfulness, or deductive logic) are not worthless. What they are is unreliable. You can't say "well, look, logically its in your best interest to.." and expect anyone to follow your suggestions. That's not how people work. But you can build nice bridges and guns with deductive logic, and you can form hypotheses about human behavior based on ideas around mindfulness and some related concepts.

Systems that are too complex to understand (i.e. practically everything interesting) can be successfully manipulated. Medicines work. Marketing works. Economies, um, kind of work.

The method, though, is to form hypotheses based on simplified models, to experiment, and to closely observe results. What you do next is based on how well the last thing you did worked out.

People who sell cake mixes watch daily sales performance obsessively. They correlate sales performance with advertising and other marketing efforts, and constantly tweak those inputs while watching the outputs. They're pretty good at selling cake mixes.

Social media sites constantly A/B test features: showing a new feature (A) to a randomly selected fraction of their users, and comparing behavior with the users who see (B) the old version (or a different version of the new thing.). This is automated. They do it live, minute by minute. Their algorithms rapidly evolve to produce whatever the desired behavior is. It's not even AI, it's just stupid automated testing. It is savagely effective.

Now come back to our conflicting responses. If we're often balanced on a knife's edge between flight or fight, or whatever, a subtle change in an algorithm, running under the aegis of an automated A/B test framework, can tip us (and by extension a bunch of the population) one way or the other almost by accident. A minor, subtle, change in the media we're seeing and suddenly everyone's voting for Donald Trump because our sfik sensors are ringing off the hook.

But at the same time, an equally subtle change can tip the world back. It's not hopeless. The impulse to follow the authoritarian is just an impulse, and it's a knife-blade's width away from a liberal spirit of generosity and kindness.

Fascists are just really good at marketing. O.J. Simpson doesn't try to reason anyone into thinking he's innocent, that he's a good guy. He's got this voice, and this set of mannerisms, a bunch of stuff that simply works. So he does that. And it works. Donald Trump and his team know how sfik works, they know it's a social construct, and they know how to construct it. They don't fuck around with white papers and deductive logic and programs on how we're going to defeat poverty, they focus on photographing Trump from down low, against the sky, so he looks Imperial. So he looks like a winner.

As humans one of our impulses is to follow, to be led by someone strong. It's not very hard to sell us a Great Leader story. You just gotta hit the right emotional notes, and then logic goes right out the window. We're not reasoning creatures.

Media, specifically photography, is my point of entry here. It's what I am interested in.

Sfik and its analogs are socially constructed, they are, really, a social consensus. To have sfik is identical to be believed, perceived, to have it. The perception is literally the thing, here. Media is about creating, shaping, destroying, beliefs. Photographs, taken en masse, as part of a campaign, can at least in theory shape ideas and opinions. Why did we think Trump was a successful, powerful, winner-type? Because he made sure that we were told so over and over, because the media around him realized they could sell ads around that story, because in the end the Republican Party realized they could extract power from selling that story.

Many millions of people, balanced on a knife's edge between compassionate liberalism and blindly following authoritarian power, were tipped to the latter by a combination of circumstance (economic stress? worries about immigration? who the hell knows, it's fractally complicated) and a well-operated (and lucky) media campaign.

Try some shit out, see how it works. Monitor your results. We can't meaningfully understand these systems, but we can manipulate them pretty well with the right methods.

Humanity can manifest any number of behaviors, one-by-one, and as a society. Those skilled in the art can and do steer it, with a little luck. Media is more or less by definition the tool that does it. If you can use it to steer society, it's media by definition. Nearly.

So, yeah, Jonathan's not wrong. There is an impulse to power and control. There is something like sfik that people can acquire, can have, and once they have it they seem to want to wield it. It is in the nature of sfik that wielding it works — it is, by its very nature, that which causes us to follow.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

On Realism in Photography

I am going to attempt to pull together my thoughts from the last few days into a more coherent whole, adding some new things. This is a bit redundant, therefore. Sorry.

Begin with this assertion: that photographs work by metaphorically transporting you to the scene of the photograph. Your response physically, emotionally, cognitively, though attenuated, is as if you were present at the scene. Importantly, one of your responses is to imaginatively fill in a larger world to contain what you notice in the photograph. You speculate about what surrounds the picture in time and in space, and you take your speculations for a kind of truth.

Take this on faith, please, and hold the thought.

Berger, writing in Art and Revolution defines realism in art (citing Lukács) as a property of the art, a property of embodying in some sense a totality, a complete world represented through a species of synecdoche by the work itself. Berger suggests that this is best realized by, among other things, embracing the medium and its limitations.

Now, to be fair, what Lukács means (as near as I can tell) by "a totality" is pretty specific. He's interested in a person's socio-economic position, their class, and what that all means. He's a Marxist, and so is Berger. I think Berger might be using a more expansive definition of "a totality" and I certainly am.

Nevertheless, I think one can argue cogently that the realism Berger is talking about is in fact the normal operation of a photograph. To a degree.

This is not to say that every photograph operates particularly well. We can certainly imagine, at least, that some photos function in this way fluidly and powerfully, while others produce the effect weakly or in some other anemic fashion. The point is that this is a thing that all, or almost all, photographs seem to striving to do.

We can then follow Berger's argument and suggest that the normal operation of a photograph (realism) is best executed by, among other things, embracing the medium of photography rather than by attempting to conceal, distract from, to argue with, the medium.

Let us now cast our minds back to 1904, and Sadakichi Hartmann's famous Plea for Straight Photography.

Hartmann here is railing against the Photo-Secession habit of heavily working their pictures, so that they look like charcoal drawings, or etchings, or paintings. He begs for photographic prints that look like photographic prints. He is, specifically, arguing that photographers ought to embrace their medium and its limitations.

The argument does not go so far as to suggest anything specific about the functioning of a "straight" photograph, beyond that it should be just as beautiful and more, in some vague sense, honest than a heavily worked print. It is clear, though, that Hartmann also believes that photographs have some special property, something he cannot quite articulate, which can give them real power. He makes clear that this power, whatever it is, is enhanced by embracing the medium and is damaged, hampered, by struggling against it.

I do not find anything in Hartmann's essay to suggest that something akin to the realism of Berger and Lukács is not what Hartmann thinks is the power of the photograph.

Let us now rope in M. Barthes, and his punctum and the "blind field" it induces. Without squinting too hard, we can identify the "blind field" as at least overlapping strongly with the totality induced by the realism we're thinking about here. It is an emotional belief in the world outside the frame, and it is induced by Barthes' punctum which everyone gets wrong. Punctum is not some "wounding detail" it is, by definition, whatever it is that induces the "blind field" effect.

Examining Camera Lucida in a little detail, we find punctum difficult to pin down, but more often than not Barthes' examples point to something banal, something ordinary, in the picture. This, of course, makes sense. The ordinary, the banal, tends to reify the photograph, it makes us believe it as real. Sometimes this is a detail, sometimes it is an overall flavor, sometimes Barthes can't tell us what it is. When he can, though, it is banal, ordinary.

Lukács also, if I am to believe the summaries, hewed to the idea of the banal detail, the ordinary, as the correct means to bolster the synecdoche by which art gestures toward a totality.

It is this embrace of the ordinary which seems to be the embrace of the medium.

When we struggle against the medium, we're seeking to show you directly something sublime. We're erasing the banal and ordinary, we're painting in something we think points directly to the sublime. When we photoshop out the cigarette butt on the ground, we're seeking to eliminate the ordinary and to replace it with the remarkable, and in doing so we uproot the photograph from its reality.

This same argument applies to staging, to posing, to a any number of pre-exposure shenanigans. The most photographic thing is to simply point the camera at what is, and mash the button. This will, by necessity, preserve all those banal details, all those shabby bits and pieces and flavors and atmosphere that grounds the photo in reality. These, in turn, might perform the punctum dance, or embrace the medium sufficiently so as to produce the totality, or if you prefer will simply result in a photographic print that looks like a photographic print.

These are all the same thing. It is the blockheadedly direct photograph which is more "photographic" and which most induces that sensation of being present, that sensation which induces us to imagine the world around the photograph, to expand the slender picture to a complete, total, world.

It is the most blockheadedly direct photograph which allows the photograph to most fully function as a photograph naturally does.

I am no Sadakichi Hartmann, in so many ways, but in particular I do not rail so against anything which is not straight photography. Do what you will, and if you desire to make your photo look like a collection of gumdrops, or half-etching and half-pencil drawing, it matters nothing to me. You be you, I urge you to follow your muse wherever it leads.

No, I mean only to speak to a particular kind of result, the kind of result that is in some sense the most natural photographic result. This kind of photograph embraces the nature of the photograph fully, contains the unintended detail, the atmosphere of the banal, the ordinary subject. It eschews heavy cleanup after the exposure, as well as any emphasis on setup, posing, and so on. In doing so, the photograph appears most like the world at which the camera is directed; in doing so it most abets that presence of viewer in the scene, and thereby abets the imaginative construction of the total world around the photo.

This is the thing photographs do best, most naturally.

This is an argument that has been made, in various forms and guises, for most of the 20th century, and here we are again. I am making it again. There is, and I dare say always will be, a tension between the urge to do as much work as possible to control the frame, and the urge to reveal and record as directly and transparently as possible that which is.

Photography is just a tool, it does both perfectly well, and much else besides. Do what you will, nobody is trying to take Photoshop away from you.

What photographs do most naturally, most effortlessly, is reveal that which is. They testify to the existence of that which was. If you choose not to argue with that, you get a thing, and a marvelously effective and powerful thing it can be.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

On Realism (Cont'd)

Let us carry on with Berger's notion that realist art, properly understood, contains a totality, a completeness of theme and does so in part by acknowledging the constraints of its medium. In photography, we might recognize this as Barthes' "blind field" (the totality) and "punctum" (the trigger which produces the totality.)

My conceit, as noted previously, is that photographs do this almost automatically. The "blind field" of Barthes' is not a special creation which only occurs rarely, but is the normal, default, operating mode of the photograph.

Berger, citing Lukács, gives us this discussion:

It is ... a distinction between a submissive worship of events just because they occur, and the confident inclusion of them within a personally constructed but objectively truthful world view.

It's always a bit dicey to propose that the photographer's attitude or personality somehow mystically appears in the photograph, but we might take this as something like a description of attitudes which lean one way or another; at least we might take it as a kind of illuminating metaphor.

Let's look at some pictures:

I'm going to go out on a limb here and claim that both of these photos are appealing. I'm also going to claim that one of them does a much better job of evoking something like a totality than the other one. You might think it's just "well, it contains people, so of course it's open to a larger read, a more world-sized read" but I don't think that's the magic key (although it's a good start:)

My daughter is extremely charming, but this photo hits too many "shitty school portrait" tropes to actually mean much beyond being a recording of what her face looks like.

Did I shoot the first one with some attitude around the confident inclusion of them [events] within a personally constructed but objectively truthful world view? I kinda did, to be honest. I was doing a thing on what is essentially the vibe of Bellingham, WA, in summertime. I may not have been thinking Big Thoughts at exactly that moment, but I had been recently.

Regardless, the first pictures opens out into a more total world than the next two. The young women appear to be waiting, to be engaged with their phones, with one another, with the photographer. We are invited to imagine, to fill in, a larger world to contain the scene. Questions are raised, to which we propose answers. Nothing earth shattering or important, but nevertheless photograph expands outward in our minds. Perhaps not to a totality, but at least well beyond the edges of the frame.

The flower and the school portrait remain framed. We see them as real, we are as I tediously bang on about transported in a sense to the flower, to the child, but there's nothing there. There's just a flower, and a child sitting in front of a backdrop. We are not particularly invited to an expansive imaginative journey.

I do not think it's outlandish to propose that, at least in approximate terms, the first one (three young women) aligns with the confident inclusion .. within a personally constructed but objectively truthful world view and the second and third (flower, school portrait) with a submissive worship of events just because they occur.

Do we spot in there Berger's assertions around embracing, versus trying to conceal and distract from, the limitations of the medium? Perhaps? The school portrait and the flower are certainly "worked" and the three woman at least appears to be more of a "straight" photograph (I honestly cannot recall how hard I beat on it with a photo editor, possibly very hard indeed.)

Certainly, to my eye, the two later pictures embrace a kind of "well, here's the subject, and that's about it, isn't it a lovely subject?" attitude, and the former is more of a "well, I think this might be an archetype of some sort" attitude.

The latter, with the open reading that tends toward a totality, do seem to me to be of a more directly photographic type. Of course you need some content, and people are certainly a good thing to have as content. But there is more to it, the people or whatever you have in it need to suggest something bigger. They need to appear as distinctly a fragment of a larger whole, and there is something distinctly photographic (in the sense of straight photography) about that fragmented character.

And that's all the mulling I have for today, I think.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Naturalism v. Realism

In Art and Revolution John Berger takes a detour through the distinction noted in the title. I don't think the discussion he offers originates completely with him, but nevertheless it's not entirely orthodox. I'm going to run through it, and then see what it might say about photography.

"Naturalism," per Berger, seeks a kind of immediate verisimilitude. The result of a successful naturalist work is a profoundly detailed real-seeming moment. Naturalism, having nothing to offer beyond this verisimilitude, distracts you from the medium. Gimmicks and tricks distract you from the fact that you are looking at a painting, or watching a play, or reading a novel. The goal is to perfectly reveal the event, the moment, the now.

"Realism," on the other hand, reveals a totality. Its operation is inherently synecdoche. The painting of the man stands in for the totality of the man's life. Like naturalism, it feels real, but it feels as if the reality extends to the whole world, rather than being huddled into the moment.

At this point my grasp of Berger's argument falters, but I think Berger is saying that realism embraces its medium, it makes no attempt to distract you from the medium, because by filling up the small container the synecdoche is completed. The painting of the man fills the idea of "painting" totally, and in doing so suggests the totality of the man's life. Uh, I think.

As a side note, Berger insists that Socialist Realism ought to be called Socialist Naturalism, for this reason, which struck me as odd because Socialist Realism seems to me very much aiming for a totality. But perhaps I misunderstand Berger, or perhaps Berger simply thinks that whatever the aim, no totality is revealed.

Anyways, this strikes me as translating very very directly to photography.

There are tons of photographers who are explicit about siding with the "naturalism" camp. They "freeze time" or "capture moments" or whatever, and, lo, we often see gimmicky shit intended to distract from the medium. Anything from street photos that emphasize some stupid juxtaposition of signage and people, to landscapes that are "processed" to death.

On the other side we have, say, me. I certainly strive for totality. I absolutely want my photograph of the street, or the tree, to stand in for something larger, to suggest something larger.

Indeed, I insist that photographs, at least when functioning properly, do exactly that. I insist that the normal response to a photograph is to fill in something of a totality, to imagine a world of some scope larger than the mere photo. Barthes and his stupid "punctum" idea is, I am pretty sure, basically the same thing again except that he claimed it was rare and made him special.

The lesson here is, perhaps, that if your photograph is to perform that act of synecdoche which yields a representation of a totality in this way, it should embrace the medium. Make it look like a photograph, don't distract from the photographic nature of the thing.

Arguably this brings us back around to the Pictorialist Sin. The Pictorialists explicitly struggled against the medium and ended up saying very little; they missed the totality, they missed "Realism" in the sense above.

I am not convinced that struggling against the medium leads to this specific failure, but Berger's argument is, well, suggestive?

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Something to Look At

Here's a photo by Cristina de Middel that's getting a very very small amount of shade thrown on twitter by the usual we-hate-Magnum #photoland cabal-of-three-dudes.

It is called "Confusion of the Pipe" and it's from a series and a book, called "Midnight at the Crossroads" which is about the spread and evolution of certain African religious practices.

In it we see someone who presents as a young Black person with what appear to be two pipes emitting bluish smoke stuck in their ears. Their eyes are slightly bloodshot. There are two stars on their top. They stare with a certain force at the camera. That's pretty much it. It's a very simple photograph.

A closer examination reveals that at least one of the pipes is not in fact stuck in the subject's ear, suggesting that the pipes are in fact mounted behind their head. The pipe stems on both sides of the head appear slightly too high to be in any ear canals. This raises the question of whether it's a poorly executed illusion, or whether we're supposed to understand the pipes as behind-the-head, rather than in-the-ear. There is an ambiguity here, but there is at least a clear nod to "pipes in ears" here.

The juxtaposition is absurdist to the point of opacity to my, western, eyes. Given the context in which the picture appears, we could reasonably speculate that it represents some religious or quasi-religious ceremony. Certainly pipes and smoking appear in at least some substantial offshoots of the religious practices de Middel is investigating. The title also suggests a reference, though, to Magritte's painting of a pipe, The Treachery of Images, which in turn suggests a maybe-too-highbrow commentary.

The absurdity, to my eyes, suggests that the subject is being made fun of, is being placed into a silly position and photographed. The subject's gaze, on the other hand, suggests a seriousness which speaks against that. I am necessarily uncertain about how the subject feels about the situation, and being photographed in it.

Anyways, the consensus among people who already hate de Middel is that the picture is absolutely racist, and that's all there is to it.

Let us back up and think about the larger context a little. de Middel and her husband Bruno Morais undertook the study of a diaspora, tracing the routes and evolutions of certain West African religious ideas and practices that have spread across a large portion of the world (largely as a result of the slave trade.)

The standard modern idea here, that these stories are best investigated and told by insiders, immediately runs into trouble. There are no insiders. There is nobody who is "inside" every aspect of this tremendously broad diaspora, the only way to tell this story by necessity involves outsiders. One hopes that de Middel and Morais collaborated closely with insiders in each region, in each enclave, but I have no way of knowing whether or not they did.

So, what about the photo? Well, it strikes me as an archetype of a certain kind of Religious Photo, a kind which by design baffles the outsider, which explicitly "others" the subject. It is intended to be illegible to outsiders. See, for instance, this photograph by Khadija Saye (who tragically died in the Grenfell Tower fire:)

Nobody would claim this photograph is racist, but that it only because the person who made it was herself a person of color. It is of exactly the same type, it presents a ritual as a mystery. Presumably Saye and members of her community would find it perfectly legible, but I do not, and I submit that I am not supposed to find it legible. I am supposed to find it puzzling, mystifying.

There are surely loads of Victorian-era photos of Mysterious Religious Ceremonies one could dredge up, and there are plenty of photos of American Snake Handling religions, and so on. There's a long and storied history of "look at this crazy religious shit" photos.

The difference, as near as I can ascertain, is that de Middel's photo does not actually document any existing practice. It references a number of things (perhaps Papa Legba's pipe smoking, and some folk-medicinal practices of blowing smoke in to ears, that kind of thing) while also referencing Magritte, and also the trope of the "crazy religious shit" photograph.

de Middel is offering us not a document as such, but a signifier.

"Confusion of the Pipe" can absolutely be read as a racist picture. It is explicitly, to my eye, "othering" the subject. It refers to lots of other pictures which "other" the subject.

In the same way, Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" can be read as simply anti-Irish. The literal text is absolutely anti-Irish, there isn't the slightest ambiguity about it.

This is the essential risk of satire, and satire-adjacent criticism. It is based on a thing which people are likely to object to, that's the point. If the author and the reader manage between them to do a bad job making sense of the "criticism" part, the base will still stand, and then things can get pretty ugly.

Does de Middel succeed in critiquing the stereotypical "lookit the freaky shit Africans get up to" tropes? Well, I don't have any trouble reading it that way. I can make sense of the critique part, but then I've been thinking about these things off and on for quite a while now.

The reference to Magritte can help us out here, Magritte's picture is called "The Treachery of Images" and there's literally a whole theory around it. We are, once we make that pretty obvious connection, immediately aware that we're not supposed to take de Middel's picture literally. Again, it is not a document but a signifier and what it signifies is not what's literally in the picture.

The breadcrumbs urging us to look and think more deeply are pretty clear, here. Insofar as the word "satire" applies here, the satire is fairly broad. Which, you know, doesn't mean you have to follow the breadcrumbs. If it's just not working for you, well, so be it.

But here we have the usual thing:

The picture admits multiple readings. To insist on only one reading as uniquely "valid" is naive. By all means, read the photo as racist, or as a selfie of a young person goofing for instagram, or as a metaphor for cheese. It's fine. But do not confuse your singular reading as a critical understanding of the thing.

A critical understanding of any photo has to acknowledge and seek to apprehend multiple readings.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

The Polysemy of Photographs

I've been continuing to putter around reading Barthes and "polysemic" is my new favorite word.

When we look at a painting, or other constructed art, we see it as a fiction. Perhaps a fiction based on a true story, but a fiction. Because we accept it as a fiction, we accept that it has many meanings. A fiction is unmoored, subject to interpretation. When we look at a photograph, we see it as a truth. Not the whole truth, not every truth, but as a truth. We know, everyone knows, that there was a true thing there, a singular ground truth which the camera partially recorded.

When we attempt to understand a photograph, in the end we are basing our efforts on an attempt to read the ground truth, the singular ground truth. We seek to fill in, to guess, to extrapolate, the single truth that was actually present at the moment of exposure. We might do more, but this is where we start, because we know there was a truth, and we know that the photograph is moored on that truth, and that truth is therefore what we start with.

Paradoxically, this increases rather than decreases the actual polysemy of a photograph. Because we are seeking to flesh out a truthful scene around the slender visual information of the photograph, we bring our own experiences, our own lives, our own prejudices to bear. Looking at a painting, we attempt to work out what the painter meant, and we probably read the blurb on the wall, or in the catalog, or we remember what someone said about the painter. These things we share with everyone around us. We bring little of ourselves to bear on the problem of "what is this painting about? What does it mean?" and yet we bring almost nothing but ourselves to bear on the same problem for a photograph.

At the same time, though a sophisticate denies it, we believe implicitly in only a single meaning for a photograph while we allow a painting to have many.

We have, after all, constructed a ground truth for the photo. We know that a truth exists, existed, and we have developed a theory of that singular truth, and this is all there is to it.

It takes an effort of will to allow that other readings, other understandings, of the picture might also exist, and might have equal force to our own. We know the truth, we see it with out own eyes, it is right there, obvious to all.

What we feel so definitely about photographs is precisely the opposite of what in fact obtains.

In reality, a photograph is more generous, admits more breadth of reading, of meaning, than does a painting; yet at the same time, we cling more tenaciously to our singular reading of it.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Something to Look At

Here is a photo:

Photo by Baz Ratner, of Tigray refugees in Ethiopia. I do not pretend to understand the details of the conflict, but a quick perusal of stuff suggests that it's another instance of ethic/religious conflict that has simmered for decades or centuries, boiling over again. They did that to us then so we're justified in doing this to them now. Whether this conflict truly is one of those or not, forgive me, doesn't really matter to the present discussion.

The author Maaza Mengiste offered some criticisms of this picture on social media, of the usual contemporary photo criticism sort, and was promptly dragged by apparently all the Tigray people in the world. They seem to think that the genocide they're experiencing is maybe more important than whether some photo "others" someone. They seemed generally pleased to have gotten some news coverage in the west. Mengiste, to her eternal credit, has rolled with it and not decided to double down, which would be the usual strategy. She has roots in Ethiopia, and one assumes actually cares about these issues. In contrast to, um, others.

So what did she see?

Well, there is no question that there is a hint of the seraglio to be seen in the poses of the foreground girls. Mengiste asks rhetorically if the photographer posed the girls, a question to which no certain answer can be known. She repeats, or suggests anyway, the standard complaints about representation and othering, suggesting that to pose these girls in this fashion is "a violence" [sic] to them. Precisely the sort of dopey rhetoric we see far too much of. It's not her fault, she's just been hanging around with idiots.

So, what do we actually see in this picture?

We see the interior of a very generic structure. It's the kind of thing built purely to enclose space. It could be industrial, athletic, religious, or just a warehouse. Dramatic light rays flow from the windows, it's probably morning or evening. The energy in the people feels more like morning.

The room is filled with people and things. The things are arranged suggesting some organization into separate collections of objects. The people appear to be moving with purpose. Gathering things, preparing things, sorting things, managing children, etc. We can't really see what any specific task is, but the sense that miscellaneous tasks are being performed rather permeates the thing.

As an aside, I am having trouble seeing this as anything other than "displaced people, temporarily sheltered" which is what it actually is. What I can't do is point to anything specific that makes this the only possible way to read it, but nor am I able to credibly develop an alternate reading.

People are dressed in bright prints, and are dark skinned. I hesitate to say "it looks African" but it's probably fair to say that the look of the people, and of their dress, is at any rate consistent with a lot of other pictures I have seen of Africa. That is surely the continent I and many others in the west would guess, if pressed.

In the foreground, a cot. There don't seem to be any other cots in frame, although there are several objects that could be cots, or could be tables. Are the cots folded up for the day? Do people sleep in the area behind the photographer, somewhere else?

On the cot, three girls. Guessing ages is always fraught, but they appear to be pre-teen, or early teens. The poses of two of the girls are distinctly "lounging" in what we might reasonably speculate is not quite a natural posture. They appear to be aware of the camera, as nobody else in frame particularly is. They appear to be posing.

One girl gazes to the side with what seems a distracted air. The next-closest girl looks directly at the camera with a neutral/serious expression. The nearest girl looks to the side, but in a way that feels deliberate, camera-aware.

So how might we read this thing? Especially, the girls in the foreground.

Certainly they are posing. Possibly they have been posed, to some degree. The nearest girl certainly has the look of someone who has been asked to "look that way" but also of someone who has simply chosen to do so. The second girl back, with the direct gaze, could be doing a "get out of here" glare, but also could be offering up her serious camera-face. She's quite neutral. The third girl back, who appears to be the youngest, seems uninterested and possibly nervous.

So what suggests the seraglio here? The bright/rich colors of the clothing, certainly. These are, surely, just the clothes these girls wear, though. The posture, the lounging on their sides, heads propped up, certainly recalls virtually every painting of a seraglio ever, at least if you're thinking along those lines. On the other hand, girls and women in groups do actually relax that way.

Certainly one can guess reasonably that the photographer selected this pose, whether he arranged it or not, and unless he's been living under a rock, he's certainly seen the kind of paintings I'm referring to here. What he was aiming for we will never know, but we can certainly see it in the result as a possibility.

Having seen it as as-if seraglio, one can further read the girl's manners as submissive (farthest away), bold (middle), coquettish (nearest girl.) One could sexualize the scene, if one were so inclined.

But nobody is fooled. Nobody thinks these girls are part of anyone's harem. This is obviously a room filled with displaced people, temporarily sheltered, it is not a seraglio. Nobody looks at this picture and thinks "lying about like whores, how lesser are these African people!" Anyone who brings that kind of energy to this picture is already a bigot, and this picture doesn't even do a particularly good job of confirming their bigotry. Does this "other" the girls, or make them familiar? I have daughters not too far off the ages of the pictured girls, and I find the picture charming and familiar. Maybe that's just me, I suppose.

Of course, this raises the flip-side complaint, that I am too familiar, and am making sense of another culture in terms of my own, which I guess I ought not to do because Ethiopian people are not cheap xeroxes of Americans, they are their own unique culture, etc etc.

So, the general flavor of the seraglio is, to my eye, certainly present. Since it does not fool anyone, and is immediately recognizable as a sham, and it is immediately recognizable that these are just girls posing for the camera, what exactly is the difficulty? How is this different from my daughter playing dressup Dementor?

The picture serves its function as an illustration to the article it goes with: it reifies these people. It shows us that the refugees mentioned in the article are real, here they are. It humanizes them, we recognize in the posing girls something of our own daughters, regardless of our local culture. There are universals, or near-universals, shown here. This is the function of the picture, and to pretend that it does not serve its function tolerably well is simply to be disingenuous. There is room here for multiple readings, as usual, but only a hardened and deeply stupid bigot would not see it as a humanistic, humanizing, picture.

Or, let us be generous here, someone who is fully committed to finding and rooting out Orientialist Sin everywhere.

I think the argument, if it goes anywhere, has to go to something like this: well, while nobody is fooled by the single picture, this picture along with all the other pictures, creates a cultural environment in which African refugees are seen in certain ways, which contributes to a culture of racism and colonial oppression.

Well, ok. I have argued in the past that this phenomenon is at least as much a reflection of existing culture as it is a force for shaping it, but let's set that aside.

There's no way to slice it: we're really very far away from this photo constituting "a violence" [sic] to these girls.

There is a something like a spectrum of possibility: from a warm fuzzy sensation of being loved, all the way over to violence. The responses evoked by a photograph are almost always attenuated. This clips the ends off the range of possibility. A photograph will essentially never evoke the same degree of emotional response that a personal interaction, a real occurence, will. Neither the most powerful good emotions, nor the worst possible, are in general available.

By its very nature, photography offers a narrowed range of responses. "Violence" is at one extreme end, or in one extreme corner, of the possible world, and it is as a rule simply not contained in the narrowed range offered by photographs.

To propose that a photograph is "violent" is simply to adopt the dopey terminology of the mediocre thinkers who pretend to criticize photography today. The use of the word "violent" is nothing more than in-group terminology amplification.

I gotta say, I quite like this photo. Tween girls are pretty great.