Monday, May 31, 2021

A Sense of Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Where and How Was it Shot?

UPDATE: See this facebook post for info from the photographer's son, along with a picture of a telescope with an F-mount that may have been used here.

Here is a little exercise to show how we can do things in this modern world. This is not one of those whacky geo-location stunts, this is just ordinary research, some simple geometry, and some careful guessing.

The photo here was shot by Robert Blomfield, of Edinburgh, in 1965. It is the then-recently completed Forth Road Bridge, which crosses the delightfully named Firth of Forth. This picture was recently posted on social media by one account, and then someone else asked if anyone would hazard a guess about what camera setup was used. And so, I did.

These remarks do not reflect my actual thought process, I made a number of false turns and wrong guesses along the way. This is a sort of streamlined version, in which we imagine I made the better guess at every turn, rather than the worse guess. Note that I did all this sitting at my desk in the Northwest corner of the USA. I didn't have to go to Scotland, not even close. I've never been to Scotland. The internet has many interesting things on it, and if you do a bit of careful work, use some available tools, and think a bit you can find out quite a bit.

We will get to the subject of camera and lens in due time. First, let us take a moment to look at the photo:

I am here claiming fair use of this and all the other materials in this post on the grounds of education and criticism.

Let us note a few things. First, the photo is quite soft, and really quite grainy. It gives the impression of something like 3200 speed film, which did not exist in 1965. Second, the perspective is quite extreme. The curve of the suspension cable looks slightly wild. The far tower of the bridge, while visually smaller than the near tower, is not that much smaller, and so on. There is an extreme compression effect in play here.

A quick review: the perspective relationships (how large faraway objects look in relation to nearer objects, and so on) have nothing whatever to do with the camera, lens length, film, etc. They have to do exclusively with where you are standing. The camera/lens combination simply selects a smaller or larger rectangle of what you can see, which focuses your attention this way or that.

Let us, accordingly, work out where the photographer was standing.

The far tower is, according to my notes, 308 pixels wide in the file I have on hand. The near tower is 636 pixels wide, or nearly twice as wide, visually. Let us assume they are the same width, in reality (they are.)

When two same-sized objects are at differing distances, their apparent sizes will be different in the same ratio as the two different distances-away. An object half, or one-third the distance away will appear twice or three times the size, and so on. The near tower appears 2.065 times wider than the far tower. If we assumed that we made a measuring error of 5 pixels, we get a range of about 2.05 to 2.08.

Let us examine this bridge on google's Maps web site. We learn, using the measuring tool, a number of useful facts. The towers are about 3300 feet apart, and are about 90 feet wide.

The photographer is some distance in feet, d, from the nearer tower, and is therefore about (d + 3300) feet from the far tower. We know that the ratio of these two distances is probably between 2.05 and 2.08.

Roughly, the far tower looks about half as wide, so the far tower is twice as far away, so the photographer is probably about 3300 feet from the near tower and (thus) 6600 feet from the far one, but we can do a little better.

Hacking around with some simple algebra we find that our photographer is probably between 3050 and 3150 feet from the nearer tower (6350 to 6450 feet from the far tower, about 1.20 to 1.22 miles). Robert was a little closer to the near tower than the near tower was to the far tower, so the near tower is a little bigger than twice as big, visually.

Looking back at the picture, we note that if sight along the frame-left edge of the near tower back to the far tower we hit about half a tower-width to the right of the far tower. We're looking at a spot in space about 40-50 feet frame-right of the far tower. We can now draw a line on google maps with the measuring tool. Well. We could if we knew which end of the bridge our hero was shooting from.

First note that the cars are going the wrong way, but since this is the UK that means that the picture is not flipped. The bridge runs north-south. We're either looking north, from the west side of the bridge, or south from the east side. Look at this detail of the car deck and the suspension cable:

The lowest point of the cable occurs dead center on the span, of course. The "horizon" of the deck strikes me as maybe slightly behind that point, which suggests that we're looking slightly down on the bridge. We're certainly not looking up to any substantial degree. A quick web search reveals that the deck of the bridge offers 175 feet of clearance to water traffic, so our photographer is working at least that high. Let's find a topo map of Scotland: provides these for us. Take my word for it that we're looking at the right approximate areas (indicated on the maps with the white sketched areas):

North end of the bridge:

South end (note that the color coded scale has changed):

The south end is maybe high enough, but frankly it's quite flat. The picture at least suggests a hillier area.

Let us assume that the north end is the right end. Vindication awaits. Using the measuring tool in google maps (on the satellite view,) we can draw this line, sighting along the edge of the near tower. Starting with an overview:

Here is the south (far) tower showing how our imaginary sightline lands 50 feet or so west of the tower:

Same sightline skimming the north (near) tower:

And finally our hypothesized photographer location. Note the markings for 1.20 and 1.21 miles, to give a sense of the range of possibility:

Now look toward the highway from our photographer's location! To the photographer's right there are three separate cuts to get down to road level, where just north and south of this location, there are but two. This spot is in fact a high point. This is borne out by the topo maps, albeit approximately, and also by the street view from the highway. Distortion makes this hard to interpret, but you can see two cuts, and then three cuts, in the hillside:

So we have located a spot where, as far as we can tell, this perspective could be accomplished. What else can we see? What about those guys in the foreground? What's going on there? There's a fence, and some streetlights, right? The people standing there look, roughly, 3 times as tall as the people on the bridge at the point where the suspension cables vanish under the deck:

That is to say, these foreground people are very roughly one third of the distance away from the photographer than the spot where the cables vanish below the deck of the bridge. After doing more measuring on google maps, let's say they are about 600 feet away from the photographer. Let us look on today's satellite imagery about there:

We're looking at a path around the perimeter of some sort of park. Indicated in red is what might be a fence (the white line on the path's edge,) the blue circles indicate what appear to be lighting over the path. It is entirely consistent with the same objects we see in the original photo from 60 years ago, although we should suppose the lighting and fence have been updated. A little further south, there are steps on the path, consistent with what looks like the abrupt drop-off beyond the foreground figures. We might even see a little bit of railing, as for stairs, in the photo.

This spot is a slightly north and a little west of the North Queensferry Community Center.

I am satisfied that Robert Blomfield went to the high point on the bluff over the highway, and worked his way as close as possible to the highway while maintaining his height in order to maximize the compression from his perspective. The result was impressive, as the actual curve of the deck of the bridge is in reality almost imperceptible. Well done, Robert!

However, we have yet to address the camera and lens. You could shoot this with anything. A modern DSLR with a 28mm lens could produce this, if you cropped the image enough. You'd wind up with a rather small file, but the perspective and framing could be made exactly as this photo is, today. To be fair, there might well be some bushes and things in the way today.

What if you wanted to shoot it straight out of the camera?

A little more research shows that the towers, waterline to the top, are 512 feet high. A reasonable guess as to what we're looking at on the near tower is about (very roughly) 200 feet from bottom of frame to top of frame, at a range of about 3100 feet. Feel free to confirm this, pictures of the bridge are widely available. The 200 vertical, and 3100 range yields a ratio of 15.5 to 1, or roughly 15:1. This same ratio will be reflected in the camera between lens and film plane, because that's optics for you.

Since we're not doing macro work here, we can guess that the focal length of the lens is a pretty good estimate of how "far" from the film plane the "lens" is (insert appropriate details about optical centers, infinity focus, and so on.) The lens has a focal length roughly 15 times the vertical height of the image on the film.

So, you could shoot this with a 15mm lens on an 8x10 camera (or any camera with a film or sensor at least 1mm high,) but you'd have to crop to a 1mm height on the film, which might be a bit much. Your picture will be ... rather soft.

A better guess would be a 300mm lens on a 35mm camera, which has a film height of 24mm (for a ratio of 12.5:1 which is definitely close enough).

Let us, however, look again at the picture. It's quite grainy. Like, really really grainy. This could be a fairly extreme crop.

In 1965 the best guess would be a 35mm camera, with various roll-film cameras running a close second. Of course, it could be anything, but these are the likely ones. We could be looking at a 300mm on a 35mm camera, cropped a bit, with some sort of very grainy development. I feel like the contrast might be higher, though. So, eh.

Let us do a little more research on Mr. Blomfield. He's one of these anonymous, mysterious, fellows who died leaving a shoebox of brilliant photographs, so of course we know more about him than we do about most well-known photographers. He acquired a Nikon F in 1960, a gift from his father, and built up a small collection of primes, including Nikon's 105mm lens. He favored Tri-X film, naturally. There is no indication that he acquired a 300mm, or one of the extreme zooms that Nikon made at the same time, and indeed one gets the sense that these would have been outside his budget.

Could he have shot this with the 105? He would have been stuck with cropping the frame quite radically, to about 7 or 8mm high, and 9 or 10mm wide on the film, about 10% of the total film area. Given the softness and the grain present in the photograph, I consider this quite likely, and in fact the most likely possibility.

You could take a 1960s vintage Nikon 105mm lens, attach it to a Nikon D8xx camera, and shoot this same photo. You'd crop your full frame file down to 4-5 megapixels to achieve it. Or, you could use a 70-200 or a 300 on any full frame camera and crop less vigorously. You might need to bring a friend or a machete to manage the underbrush, and you might need to climb over a couple fences, I'm not sure. I live in Bellingham, not in Edinburgh.

I have to give Mr. Blomfield an immense about of respect here. This was terribly bold, to shoot an absurdly wide view, with the aim of cropping it down to this. His shooting position, rendering this extreme perspective on the bridge, suggests that this was in fact his intention. He went to no small effort to render the bridge this specific way, he must have intended to emphasize this specific perspective. Had he printed the whole frame, or anything like it, he'd have a picture of a little bridge over a big body of water.

It's a bold crop, and a remarkably successful photograph. He was aided by the fact that the 105 is a really very good lens, and his technique was, I suspect, excellent. He had been photographing the bridge throughout its construction, for several years, so it is not surprising that he'd found the spot, and this perspective. It's possible he'd made experiments, and learned that, with the right mood in mind, he could in fact get away with this picture.

Comparing analog to digital in terms of megapixels is a fool's game, but anyways this photo is probably something like an effectively 1, maybe 2, megapixel photo. Nevertheless, it works.

Fortune favors the bold.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Colberg's Neoliberal Realism

It is maybe worth noting that Colberg's conception of this thing seems to be evolving, he's no longer obsessed with just throwing shade at Annie Leibovitz. Which is good! It's good!

Apparently this is one of those ideas that's just going to niggle at me, though, so every now and then I suppose I will have another go at it, and see what there is to be said about it. I have said, I think, and maintain, that there is something here. Naturally, I insist that I can say it better. Let's see how I do, shall we?

An advertisement is a proposition. If you buy this tool, you will be a better craftsman. If you buy this car, you will have more fun driving, or it will be more convenient to transport your children about. Most of the ads we see are offering you something about your life, or your work, or your appearance.

Now consider the Patek Philippe watch ad. What does it offer you? The watch itself keeps time somewhat less well than a cheap digital watch. It is, though, in its own way attractive, in part because it is known (to those who matter) to be expensive. Wearing the watch makes you, maybe, more desirable.

In general, though, the proposition offered by the watch advert is that you yourself will be altered, or possibly revealed, to be a more perfect human. Wearing, possessing, the watch is about you in your essence.

The Tiffany & Co. jewelry reveals you in much the same way, although perhaps what reveals you to be a more perfect human is that you have elected to place the jewelry on the body of a desirable woman.

Now, all adverts partake of this, a little. If you buy a Coca-Cola, not only will you be refreshed, but you will also (it is implied) be a more perfect person. This second note, though, is attenuated for Coca-Cola and amplified to the moon for luxury brands. Arguably a luxury brand might be defined as a brand whose products primarily aim to reveal you as a more perfect person. They are, by definition, not notably practical for any purpose.

There are brands which straddle this: the BMW automobile offers a pleasurable driving experience, allegedly, but also acts as a luxury. The BMW reveals you as more perfect, and is also fun to drive.

The fashion magazine cover, where Colberg started (roughly), is much the same. This is a perfect person, albeit usually a woman and so it's not clear if she is intended to represent a possession of a perfect person, or a perfectly possessable woman, or a perfect person in her own right. Possibly all of the above. Nobody suggests that men should be possessions.

Consider these luxury brands and their advertisements. Imagine, if you will, the perfect person offered. Who is it you will be, wearing the Vacheron Constantin watch with flying tourbillon? Who will you be, when you wrap the $12,000 and yet somehow understated Van Cleef & and Arpels chain around your mistress's neck?

I don't know about you, but to me these people all seem to be the same guy. He's also the male lead in many a romance novel and movie. He's the public face of the successful politician, the captain of industry. He's also male, as an aside, but there's female counterpart attached to his hip, so there's that.

He is the perfect avatar of what we now call neoliberal capitalism. He's that guy.

Colberg's conceit is that we can consider these advertisements as a parallel to state sponsored art, specifically the art of socialist realism. He's almost right, and if you say heroic realism instead, you pretty much nail it.

The various flavors of state sponsored heroic realism all offer the proposition of the perfect citizen. Everyone in "Triumph of the Will," all those blotchy peasants and factory workers in Stalin-era Soviet paintings, Comrade Lei Feng in China, they're all model citizens. They're the goal to which we (ought to) aspire.

The state offers the goal of the perfect citizen, and offers various paths to that goal. Join the party. Join the army. Clean your teeth diligently. Pick up trash. Whatever, it doesn't matter. There is a perfect person you could be if only you performed the appropriate rituals.

The Patek Philippe advert offers essentially the same deal. Buy the watch, be the man. Be the perfect citizen.

The element of realism is critical here. Indeed, I think it follows the Berger/Lukács conception of realism, that it is more than merely an attention to details but rather a metonymic representation of a world, of a totality of existence.

The point here is not to merely show a detail, but to propose an entire life, a complete existence, as a perfect citizen, as a perfect person. The watch does not merely make you look good in a picture, it rewrites your life into one of perfection. You are someone new, you are born again as it were, as a perfect citizen.

Whether advert or state-sponsored painting, the message is the same:

    join us: perform the ritual, become as new, become perfect.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Beliefs, Images, Culture

Barthes says at one point in his little book that advanced cultures consume images rather than beliefs, and that this (somehow) makes them more liberal, less fanatical, but also less authentic. Levi Strauss in his more recent and slightly littler book quotes this.

Possibly they would argue that contemporary society is not "advanced" at this moment in time, but at any rate is is absolutely false that we consume images in preference to beliefs. Rather, we use photographs to anchor and reify beliefs that we already hold.

A news photograph to accompany the story of a riot has a photograph of the riot. A common complaint levelled in these modern times is that the photo of the riot does not represent the rioters properly (if the speaker sides with the rioters, if otherwise the speaker doesn't give a shit if the rioters are properly represented.) This complaint is to miss the point of the news photo.

That the photo of the riot looks like any other riot is the point. This is a riot, and in many ways it was like any other riot, and the photograph's actual job is to make that point. Of course, the riot was also unique and special in some ways, a veritable snowflake of a riot, but that is in general not what a news story is aimed to tell. Maybe someone will write a book or something, but for this page 3 news story the guts of the story is that there was a riot, a lot like any other riot, but it was at this place, this time, this many buildings and police cars were torched, and the riot was over, broadly, these issues.

A corporate headshot isn't supposed to reveal the character of the CEO, it's supposed to look like a corporate headshot, and to paint the man as intelligent, caring, firm, and so on. Exactly like every other corporate headshot, but as it happens, of this particular guy.

A photo of a toothbrush for an ad, or a senior for graduation, or a girl in a prom dress or a bride, or a landscape, or a bum, these are all primarily stand-ins. They are, as Barthes might remark, reduced to signifiers. They do not, pace Barthes, refer irrevocably to their subjects. They refer to their specific subject, in fact, only very gently. They refer to the larger idea (signified) of "a riot," "a girl in a prom dress," "a toothbrush."

We glance at every one of these photos, and note that they look as they ought to look. The photo reifies the riot, the CEO, the toothbrush, the bride. Look, there he, she, it is. We are offended and angry when the wrong riot photo gets run next to the article, but it doesn't actually matter. It happens all the time, and every riot photo looks like every other riot photo. But we expect to get the right photo, because the point is to reify this riot, not that one, this CEO, not that marketing exec.

This happens surprisingly often with rocket launches during military conflicts, for some reason. Nobody denies that so-and-so is indeed firing off rockets at so-and-so, but for some reason a photo from a completely different conflict is used. Nobody even notices until some sharp-eyed fellow recognizes the specific photo.

One rocket launch looks a lot like another, it turns out, and it didn't really matter which picture was used. But we want our belief in the actual rockets to be supported by an actual photo of the actual rockets. That is the social function of the photo, here. The details of the picture's content don't matter. It could be a photo of Elmo the muppet for all it matters, if somehow Elmo could contrive to look a little like a rocket, or a CEO, or a riot. But we demand the right thing because this is the social function of the photo. Like Climate Change Science, we imagine that we could verify the truth of it ourselves, if we were so inclined, and Elmo in a Rocket Costume simply won't work.

I have argued, at length, that something quite different from this trivial, uncaring, glance happens when we look at photos. We enter the picture, and blah blah blah. I will now slightly adjust this position:

This complex engagement with a photo, I maintain, is what happens when we actually bother to look at the picture. Most of the time we don't. When we glance, when we consume the photo normally, we do not enter the picture, or imaginatively fill in a world, or whatever. We simply note that the object or event in question has been duly reified, and we move on.

It is when we care that we examine the photo, and experience a "blind field" or whatever you want to call it. When we are invested in the political issues that surround the riot, and choose to look at the photo seriously, for whatever reason, then we examine it; then we imagine the riot; then we sort the players into good guys and bad guys; we examine the photo (and our imagination) for evidence to support our positions.

When we examine the photo lightly, in the usual way, we are working with what are usually a bunch of words around the picture. A news article, a voiceover, a talking head. The words tell us the sketch of the situation, we form an opinion if we have not already done so. We gather up our belief or cloud of beliefs, and merely glance at the photo to confirm them or to support the idea that we could confirm them if we chose to do so.

You could argue, I suppose, that we are not consuming beliefs here, as much as we are applying them to the photos we are consuming, and perhaps that is the point. To be honest, Barthes' remark is one of those glib statements that sounds very clever, but does not actually seem to mean anything when you clear away the underbrush.

The idea, though, that we are evolving into a primarily visual culture, a culture of pictures without words, is pretty much completely wrong. The words we're using aren't exactly subtle or nuanced, but we're as word-based as we ever were. Photographs are not eating everything.

Monday, May 17, 2021

The Project vs. The Pile

I happened a month or two ago to look in on a 3 of 5 presentations in a series put together by one Paul Halliday, "programme convenor" (whatever that means, it's British, I think) for a vanity MA that Goldsmiths sells. The first presentation was Paul once again giving his "London" photographs. I've talked about this, um, collection, before. The other presentations were by fairly recent graduates of the MA program. I will leaved them un-identified, because they seem like nice people who would be better served by anonymity here.

Shortly thereafter I looked at a 30 minute interview with another earnest British wannabee who's going off to do a masters someplace or other. That presentation being of much the same stripe, it got me to noodling.

The thing all of these presentations had in common was this:

The presenter had in hand a pile of photographs, without the foggiest notion of how to shape them into a project. Paul has been hacking around with his pile pretending it's going to be something some day for 20 years. The others, being younger, have had less time to aimlessly sift their pictures.

The piles were all over the place: archives of found prints, archives of snaps taken by the photographer over a period of years without direction, a collection of strongly conceptual individual prints built around a specific gimmick.

As piles go, they were fine. There's plenty of depth to any of these piles. The photos are good enough for something. Each pile contains, manifestly, at least one substantive project. Something with depth and meaning could be drawn from any of these, in some cases a dozen different things could be drawn out.

What is lacking here is not content, but method. The Goldsmiths people all gave essentially the same talk: "And then I took this photo. And then I took this photo and it was tricky because.. And then I took this photo." for a hour. I can, quite literally, go around to my local camera club and see the same talk "This is a barn. I couldn't get the whole barn in frame because I was parked at the side of the road, so it's just part of the barn. Then I took this photo."

The presentations were almost painful to watch, completely pitiable. I couldn't even tell whether the artists had any idea how far into the weeds they were. One presentation took a sort of stab at something conceptual, something over-arching, but didn't get anywhere before lapsing into a litany of "this photo... this photo..." I may have been projecting but I did feel a kind of pathos, a kind of "am I done? is this it?" wistfulness from the presenters.

Exactly the same situation obtains at the local camera club as with this apparently pretty large category of masters-ish students: perfectly good photos which could, without a doubt, be shaped into a collective object of some sort, but which are not so shaped. They are a formless mass of photos, because the photographer, the artist, has no real notion of what the next step is, or if there is a next step.

At the same time, in other corners of the Serious Photography world, we have small armies of people extracting projects from piles. Sam Contis made Day Sleeper from a pile of Dorothea Lange's castoffs, and it looks to me like it is credibly "a project" in some meaningful way. We could argue about whether Maloof has found any coherent sub-piles in the work of Vivian Maier, but certainly some people think these things are "projects" in some meaningful way. The "found photograph" book is actually a fairly large genre at this point, and while they may frequently be bad projects they are often at least conceptually coherent things rather than merely piles.

This is a thing which can be taught, or at any rate learned, but it appears that it is not learned at Goldsmiths. For 10,000 pounds, 18,000 if you're not British, you too can assemble a pile of photos that you can sort of pitifully stir around for a few years before you return to the family business.

I find myself puzzled as to how I would explain or teach the process myself. I know it is a process that can be done, and I could probably talk about a half dozen specific approaches to making a sequence of photographs that has at least a chance at transcending pile-ness. What I do not know is any generalizations that make any sense.

I think if I were trying to teach this, I would probably teach the specifics by example: "Let's tell a literal short story with a simple plot using these photos" and "let's sequence these photos by geometrical coincidences, Frank/Evans style" and "let's sequence these by subject matter" and "let's sequence these by mood" or whatever.

Just do it over and over and over different ways, and hope that something sticks.

Photographers have been taught too long that "editing" consists of "picking out the good ones" and that's just not it. I mean, that's a skill too, but it's mainly useful if you're selling individual prints.

Picking out the good ones is almost counterproductive when you're making a project, a sequence, a coherent body of work. You need the filler shots too.

An idea wouldn't hurt, while you're at it.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Here's a Thing

The other day Dr. John Edwin Mason saw fit to direct our attention to this drawing:

The drawing heads a news story about the man depicted in the foreground, right side of the frame, which suggests that he took a bunch of money that didn't belong to him. About the picture, Dr. Mason wrote:

Is it just me, or does this cartoon skirt dangerously close to anti-Semitic stereotypes? (Gertler is an Israeli Jew.) Maybe I see it because I teach this stuff, & it's always on my mind.

Several people followed up, including Dr. Colberg, agreeing that the cartoon contained anti-Semitic stereotypes. The only detail actually noted was that the man in the drawing appears to be wearing a yarmulke, which it was also noted, he actually does. Why sticking a yarmulke on a Jew is anti-semitic is a subtlty that eludes me, but here we are.

I have no idea what, if anything, any of these people think they saw beyond the little hat. I do not know if they saw the same things. Some of them may simply be ass-kissing, some of them may have some visual in mind. I don't know.

What does appear obvious, in some sense, is that the villain of the news story looks like an unctuous stereotypical middle-eastern evil mastermind. The drawing absolutely looks like some movie terrorist (although, normally he'd be Muslim, but again, here we are.)

There is one minor fly in this particular ointment. If it occurs to you to wonder what Dan Gertler actually looks like, 5 seconds or so of the usual operations will produce this photograph:

From which the drawing is, obviously, copied. There are some slight differences. The drawing depicts the eyebrows as slightly smaller, the eyes as a little larger, the shoulders drop slightly.

Now, it is not my intention to accuse Dr. Mason of being disingenuous, although he is obviously guilty of being extremely lazy. I am sure he saw anti-semitism in the drawing. The question is, where did it come from? There are some choices.

It came from the artist, or art direction: No, this is just what Gertler looks like. The drawing is a fair copy.

It comes from Gertler himself, he embodies a stereotype: Uh, that's probably a bad choice.

It comes from the viewer: Ding! This one is probably right.

Dr. Mason is primed to see anti-semitism, racism, and so on. He literally spends his days looking for visuals that embody negative stereotypes. Ditto some of his followers. Accordingly, he finds it. Sometimes when the artist put it there, and sometimes when the artist didn't put it there.

There is no problem here, really. The truth is that some of the meaning we make of media, photos in particular, but also other forms of media, arises from ourselves. Especially non-motion visual media, I think, since it seems to be particularly open to reading: it is particularly lean on its own supply of baked-in meaning, and yet it is quite open to the idea that meaning ought to be present. We project onto photos, to a much greater extent that is obvious.

So, Drs. Mason and Colberg, being professional hunters-of-isms in photographs, are primed to see these things. To nobody's surprise at all except perhaps their own, they project meaning onto pictures. Sometimes, although by no means all the time, the only -ism that's in the picture is the one they projected onto it. This is normal. This is expected. This is literally how media works.

The trouble is that the good Doctors don't acknowledge this. Both of them quite like to imagine that it's all the artist's fault. The person who drew the picture, the editor, the photographer, they are revealing their own racism, their own anti-semitism, or whatever. Worse, perhaps they're pandering to a racist or anti-semitic audience. Neither Dr. seems to exhibit any awareness of how much of the material they themselves are bringing to the table.

They act a great deal like audiophiles who genuinely hear a more three-dimensional soundstage. What a more three dimensional soundstage actually sounds like they're somewhat at a loss to describe, but they absolutely genuinely hear it. Which, in the case of an audiophile, is great. You're enjoying your music that much more, how great is that? But they ascribe this internally generated effect to the $10,000 oxygen free gold plated speaker cables.

That's a problem. For audiophiles it's just expensive, but University Professors actually shape young minds and ought to have a firmer grasp of the difference between objective shared reality, and personal internal illusion.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Crit: Photography and Belief by David Levi Strauss

MACK books has started publishing what amount to chapbooks with what passes for academic content these days. Jörg Colberg's book about Annie Leibowitz was one of those. It turns out that David Zwirner has also started doing this. It's like a trend for Art Companies to get credible, or something. Anyways, David Levi Strauss (art critic) wrote this book, published by Zwirner, and it got reviewed in "The Nation," some mook complained that the 2400 word review was "super long" and here we are.

In this thing Levi Strauss investigates, essentially, why it is that we believe photographs, and what the nature of that belief is. What is the character of the uniquely photographic belief that we (at least sometimes) develop in response to a photo? To say that this overlaps with my own interests might be a bit of an understatement.

The investigation in this volume begins with some material about the apostle Thomas and his doubts (and need to see to assuage them) and a section on the Shroud of Turin, which are fun to read and set the stage, mainly by bringing in a mystical/religious flavor we will see later.

The book proceeds by examining more or less the standard canon of writers: Walter Benjamin, John Berger, Roland Barthes, and a few others that I don't recognize as being particularly standard references, notably Vilém Flusser. I will slip over the other references, as they don't strike me as particularly important to the things I want to say. Levi Strauss' method is to quote bits and pieces from his preferred sources, and then squint a bit at those quotations until he discerns something in them about his topic, belief.

The result is something that feels rather like an argument, but in the end is maybe more of a survey. Levi Strauss holds his own remarks for a short chapter at the very end (about which more later) sticking to providing interpretations of his sources up to that point.

Whether survey or argument, though, he's mining what I consider to be fairly decent sources. Ok, Barthes is a bit of an idiot, but he's at least serving up a frothy set of more or less original ideas. Flusser, with whom I am completely unfamiliar, seems similarly loopy-yet-thoughtful.

What does Levi Strauss discover, or perhaps confirm, in his investigation?

That belief in photos arises from ourselves, rather than from the photograph itself. Levi Strauss describes this as a kind of "magic" which word he borrows from several of his sources and which, to my irritation, does not in any meaningful way mean "magic." It is a bit like talking to a Wiccan about "magick" — they desperately want it to be real, but the real world regrettably intervenes so they weave a web of vague words which, when unpacked, reveals either nothing or something fairly mundane. Levi Strauss and his sources mean something to do with imagination and something to do with human social machinery. Something vague and not really pinned down. But something certainly pretty mundane, and certainly not magic.

I think it would not be unfair to summarize Levi Strauss thus: our belief in photographs is an artifact of certain imaginative and social mechanisms in our psyches, in our natures as human beings and as such it has something of the character of an act of imagination, a social act.

Longer time readers might recognize this. I agree with this position entirely. Where Levi Strauss and I differ is on the mechanics that produce this result.

Fairly early on, the author does some spadework to dismiss the idea of "index" as outdated (which is a standard, if goofy, position these days) and then immediately smuggles it back in under the name acheiropoetic. Now, this terms means something like "an image made without the hand of man" and refers to a small handful of religious icons which allegedly appeared by mystical means. Translated to photography, it means "index" except that its etymology is from religious terminology rather than semiotics, which fits rather neatly with the use of the word "magic."

The author's goal here is to transfer some of the "magic" from the photograph (where it is called "index") to the viewer (where Levi Strauss identifies it as "acheiropoetic/mystical/magic") and that point is well taken, but made in a slightly peculiar way. These are the same ideas, but the emphasis moves from technical properties of the photo, to the viewer response to those technical properties.

There is a certain amount of more or less arbitrary insertion of the mystical going on here, to no particular purpose that I can discern. To an extent Levi Strauss is saying that these things are squishy, not rational, and that's a fair point. I rather wish he'd refer to religious and mystical ideas as a basis for comparison, for understanding, rather than insinuating them into his actual argument, though.

Anyways, the meat of Levi Strauss' argument is that the "indexical" property, renamed "acheiropoesy" or sometimes "trace" or sometimes "magic" is the thing that initiates (by undisclosed means) the imaginative/social response to the photograph, which manifests itself as "belief."

The text of the book itself is a bit more dubious than it might seem, given that he arrives at what I consider to be roughly the right answer. In order to make sense of his squinting at his sources, one must squint a fair bit at Photography and Belief. I am pretty sure that my squinting is on the mark but one can never really be sure, can one?

The following remarks will be a bit scatter-shot. You should treat it as a kind of highlight reel, critiques and complaining about this bit and that bit, that jumped out at me. The whole is rather more bland and well-made than these snippets might suggest, and yet I think also these are a little suggestive of the whole.

Levi Strauss, to my eye, mishandles his sources. The snippets he carves out are, because they are quotations, partaking heavily of whatever the source's private language is. You really have to spend a fair bit of time with Barthes to be able to make sense of any specific sentence. Less, with Berger, but a broader familiarity will still serve you.

I found myself hemming and hawing, but eventually nodding along with the sources I was familiar with, and had to hand. I don't know Benjamin firsthand, and I don't know Flusser at all, and quite frankly those snippets and quotations made them sound like idiots.

One example. Flusser, evidently, proposes that linear writing displaced an image-based culture, in some sense, with some sort of profound change thereby (shades of the never-cited Mcluhan here whose oft-cited but rarely understood aphorism "the medium is the message" means, among other things, that a culture which writes is different from one that does not.) Levi Strauss quotes Flusser:

Texts do not signify the world; they signify the images they tear up.

Now, I am willing to stipulate that in context this probably isn't as idiotic as it sounds. Given to us more or less alone, though, it's simply a stupid thing to say. Flusser sounds like a bloviating dolt, although we might assume I suppose that he is not.

Another example. Levi Strauss quotes Berger:

The denial of the innate ambiguity of the photograph is closely connected with the denial of the social function of subjectivity.

but on the next page appears to be asserting that Berger says the latter arises from rather than merely being closely connected with the former, which simply is not what Berger said. Berger does state, in a bit that Levi Strauss does not quote, that "The way photography is used today both derives from and confirms the suppression of the social function of subjectivity" which is not quite the same thing. So, the author is onto something, but has made something of a hash out of it.

While we're at it, it's worth noting that "the social function of subjectivity" itself is unclear. Is it the capacity of subjectivity to perform some social function, as in "the bending function of the elbow" or is it an active ongoing functioning of subjectivity in the service of the social? Is it the capacity that is suppressed, or the actual ongoing function? Is the engine rendered incapable of turning, or is it in fact stopped from the actual turning that it is doing right now?

Berger makes it clear that it is the latter, the ongoing function, and what he is decrying overall is the quantization of society. Where society used to be based on squishy things like faith, emotion, a sense of justice, or whatever, it is now more and more based on Verifiable Facts, and Measurable Quantities, among those things, photographs.

What this all has to do with Levi Strauss' thesis is a little vague in the book under discussion, but Berger is making the point that photographs as a means of communication, as media (as opposed to evidence, say) can and do function socially, subjectively, even imaginatively. By doing a not-very-good job of explaining Berger to us, Levi Strauss wound up taking something of a pointless detour that failed to explain Berger, and also mostly failed to make much headway toward Levi Strauss' thesis.

To my eye he does a better job with Barthes, although infuriatingly he focuses like everyone else on punctum when what he wants is "blind field," the latter being literally and precisely Barthes' take on what belief in photographs is.

And so on, and on. I daresay someone deeply familiar with Benjamin or Flusser would be able to similarly nitpick Levi Strauss' castle-erecting operations on those fronts as well.

But the central thesis is, I think, sound. You do not have to squint too excessively to discern Levi Strauss' idea about belief-in-photos in these sources. I think we could argue that these things are pretty well understood, and right up until we get to that last short chapter, the whole thing seems almost to collapse to a precis of Berger's essay "Appearances" which leaves one wondering, a little, what the point of this is. If it's just "Appearances," except murkier and mired in a bunch of other references, what exactly is Levi Strauss trying to accomplish here?

This brings us to the end, the last chapter, in which the author tries to add something new and substantive to the thing. To be honest, it's a bit of a mixed bag.

Levi Strauss makes a stab at criticizing social media photography, by asserting that we look at photos there in a "flow" rather than one-by-one, and suggests that this is new and different. How, exactly, "flow" affects the structure and character of our belief in photos he seems to leave unclear. It's not at all obvious to me that "flow" is in fact new. We have had magazines for a while now, and has he ever watched people in an art gallery? It's a hell of a lot like instagram where you use your feet instead of your thumb to scroll hurriedly past the pictures.

He talks about how images are being made purely to be consumed by the computer, by machines, which is a bit of a bugaboo, but again offers no opinion on why or how this matters except to hand-wave in the direction of "Capital" a bit. Around here he offers this doozy:

Capital has turned being into having, and having into appearances, and it has turned appearances into a commodity, leading to estrangement and alienation.

Grammatically, this begs the question "look, are we collapsing 'being,' 'having,' 'appearances,' and 'the commodity appearances have become' into a single thing, or have each of the things simply taken one step right?" This is one of those sentences for which I assume the answer is "doesn't matter, because the sentence doesn't really mean anything anyways, beyond 'capitalism is v. bad and alienating.'"

Ok, that's a little unfair, I guess. There is something in there about consumerism, and appearances being The Thing, and so forth. If we take it as a sort of poetic/metaphorical thing there's something there, I guess.

Then there's more sort of unfocused unpacking and stirring around of the ideas:

Belief in images has become the test case for the social. If we do not find a way to believe what we see in images we will lose the ability to act socially.

which strikes me as the sort of thing someone who needs to get outside more might say. It's not completely without point, you can argue that photographic media provides us in some critical way with the things we need in order to perform socially (politically?) in our current culture. I guess. I feel like the author ought maybe to show his work here a bit, at least, and it may be simply nonsense.

Later Levi Strauss wonders out loud about what will happen as our relationship with photographs changes from "the trace" (the index, smuggled in again under a different name) to "the flow" which causes one to wonder what the hell he's on about, since those don't even seem to be comparable concepts. What he means is probably "look, we used to react to the indexical nature of photos, we took it for showing us that-which-was, and now we're just kind of skimming them in a sort of trance" which, ok, maybe there's something to be said there? One rather wishes Levi Strauss had said something.

Again, this particular thing is built on the somewhat shaky idea that the way we consume photographic media, the nature of our belief in photos, somehow matters to something, and again the author has declined to show his work. This is pretty standard: scholars of photography take it more or less for granted that photos are Super Duper Important and assume they don't have to demonstrate that.

As with most authors, Levi Strauss insists that it's the index that matters, it is the fact that the photograph is a "trace" of the world, made "acheiropoetically" that matters and that this is the underlying reason for our reaction to it.

Having promoted this very idea fairly stridently on this very blog, and been corrected by my readers, I have to point out that this thesis as stated flies in the face of the very idea of perception. It is not how the damned thing was literally made. It's whether we think it was made that way.

Photorealistic paintings work on us in exactly the same way photographs do, despite being made by hand with paint. We perceive them the same way. At the same time, abstract photos, for instance, do not, because we do not perceive them as the trace-of-the-real.

Levi Strauss is almost right, I contend, but not quite. If we perceive it viscerally as real, then we react to it with a pseudo-presence inside the picture, and react to that attenuated sense of presence by deploying our imagination, our pre-existing beliefs, our social mechanisms, as well as integrating things like captions and accompanying text, to create an imaginative world to contain the photo. We believe that imaginative world, because in a sense we are there in it.

This is not quite what Berger says in "Appearances" nor is it quite what Barthes says in Camera Lucida but if you squint, you can see something like it in there. As far as I can tell, my original contribution here is confined to the idea of a pseudo-presence, felt viscerally, perhaps biologically, which is induced by the real-seemingness of the picture.

This book feels, to be honest, a little tossed off. It is as if Zwirner dropped him a note and said "hey, could you bang out something about 15,000 words for this series we have?" and Levi Strauss felt that he could probably do that, and did.

It is curious that the book, despite repeating the inversion of the aphorism: "Believing is Seeing" failed to cite Errol Morris' book of that title. To be fair, Morris is up to something at most tangentially related to the investigation Levi Strauss wants to make, but then so are all of Levi Strauss' other sources. Mcluhan probably should have been mentioned in passing as well.

Is it worth buying? Maybe! If you're remotely interested in the subject, if you're one of the three of us, then the endnotes alone are probably worth it. It's cheap. It's thoughtful. It's not wrong. It's not perfect.