Monday, August 30, 2021

Nnngh. The state of scholarship.

Here's a paper getting passed around by the usuals on social media. None of them will actually read it, but it will be cited as Necessary and Important, and over time will acquire meaning quite distinct from its content. What Does #Freedom Look Like?

If someone else would read it, and report back here — especially if I am wrong — I would count it a favor.

I read it, once. It's a bit thick on academic-ese, but in broad strokes what they did was this: They collected a set of Values (socially loaded words like "Health") from somewhere reputable. Then they gathered up the most popular hashtags on instagram, and as a team assigned one of more Values to each hashtag. Then they looked at a corpus of popular instagram pictures tagged with those hashtags.

They used a number of what appear to be rigorous methods to arrive at consensus at various points, although they seem to me to have been maybe a bit heavy-handed in scrubbing datasets here and there and throwing out things that were not going the right way. Let us stipulate, though, that their data handling, analysis methods, and statistics are all sufficiently sound. Evaluating those seems like actual work, ew, and there's lower-hanging fruit.

They then draw some conclusions with some charts and graphs and commentary.

Their goal is to connect instagram tropes (visual tropes) with Values. That is to ask, roughly, "what does instagram as an archive have to say about its user's ideas around, say, "Health" as a Value?" How do "we" (per instagram) visualize "Health?"

It probably isn't a bridge too far to propose that they want to show how instagram generates and perpetuates Gramscian hegemony. Which, on the one hand, of course it does if Gramscian hegemony is even a thing; but which on the other hand demonstrating it rigorously is, like, work.

They conclude that instagram's visual conception of "Health" is limited to fitness/workout related themes. There's a lot of p-values around, and citations, and so on, so it feels very rigorous.

But there's a problem. The study introduced the word, the Value, of "Health," it's an artifact of the method. They went and dug up a bunch of Values somewhere else, and then manually connected them with hashtags. Of the collection of most popular hashtags, the ones the team of authors connected with "Health" are: #Fitness, #Workout, #Bodybuilding, #Motivation, #Gym.

For some reason I am unable to determine, the hashtag #Health was not associated with the value "Health" according to their table. The #Health hashtag is, however, associated with the "Progress" Value. This might be an error in the table? There is probably some methodological detail I am missing here, but if so this suggests that the method might be, uh, flawed.

(Honestly, I cannot work out what the hell Table 1 in their paper IS? Maybe the associated hashtags that go with Beauty are hashtags that appear with #Beauty? So you wouldn't include #Beauty as a hashtag that appears with itself? The use of the word "term" in their method section doesn't seem to be fixed. It's also clear that hashtags like #Instagood are not in the Values terms they're starting with, because that would be insane, so there's some sort of dichotomy between Values and Hashtags in here.)

Ok, so, what they have actually determined, as far as I can see, is that instagram's visual conception of workout/fitness ideas leans heavily toward workout/fitness visuals, which is not, to my eye, a huge surprise. The connection to the Value "Health" appears to be entirely synthesized by the study itself.

(Or, possibly, what they're studying is hashtag clusters, rather than visuals, if #Health is in fact not a merely an externally introduced term, but also a hashtag they're studying)

When restricted to the most popular aspects of instagram, ideas like health care workers, proper diet, workplace safety, and whatever else you might reasonably associate with "Health" simply don't appear. These are not visually appealing subjects, in instagram's sense of the word.

This is, to be fair, something notable. Instagram absolutely focuses on specific slender tranches of culture and life, tranches which lend themselves to a specific style of visual representation. If this is the point the authors are striving to make, I don't think they've made it. Introducing the layer of Values terms and then laboriously (but rigorously!) wiring everything through them has simply muddied the waters, and produced spurious non-results.

A few other random notes:

I did not particularly dig in to any of the other 19 Values they worked with here, so I don't know if they same problems plague those, but to be honest I don't see how they can't. The introduction of the Values and the effort to study everything through that intermediate layer of analysis seems to me inherently flawed.

As is apparently some kind of requirement in this field, they include a Barthes citation which doesn't appear to mean anything. They cite Camera Lucida (natch) but I am pretty sure they mean to cite Mythologies (if they intend anything at all) based on the remark they're trying to support. I don't know most of the other cited material, but this is not a good look. I mean, it's possible that there's some side remark in CL that is actually relevant? But neither the actual thrust of the book itself, nor what are commonly understood as its theses, seem to be at all related to the thing they're trying to support.

They mention, a couple of times, the idea that instagram (and similar) encourages people to produce photographs in the same vein as already exists, that there is a feedback loop in play here, which produces an ongoing (albeit evolving) narrowness of vision around certain topics. The study in no way supports this thesis, and in fact does not pretend to, which begs the question of why they keep bringing it up. I mean, it's obviously true and a very appealing notion, but in the context of the paper it seems silly to mention it.

This is especially true given the above-mentioned flaws. If they want to assert that instagram's library of visual tropes both reflects and enforces a certain way of visualizing "Health" (and, to be honest, this is pretty clearly what they aim to do) they have quite a lot more work to do.

Overall one gets the sense that the ambition of the paper is to rigorously support something about cultural hegemony, to back up some of the commonly understood ideas about visual culture with alpha-tests, p-values, N=2000 statistics, and thoroughly cited theoretical underpinnings. In the end, though, even the very limited study they managed to bash their way through is methodologically a mess that produced, to my eye, almost no interesting result.

In the end, they have determined that on instagram, the photos align accurately with the hashtags attached to them but that trying to connect popular hashtags to general, broad, cultural values is a dicey proposition that doesn't seem to go anywhere no matter how much numerical crunching you do.

The state of scholarship in this field is really, truly, not good. I don't read any large percentage of the literature, but basically everything I touch after about 1990 seems to be really sloppy.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Something to Look At

Here's a photo.

This is by Irina Rozovsky, from a series (and book by MACK) "In Plain Air," a series of photos taken in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. The series is mainly idyllic photos of the park, largely but not exclusively people chilling out. This one is notable, though.

At first glance you'd imagine that the young woman is relaxing on a tree branch, like some beautifully feral creature, at home in the forest, half asleep blissfully absorbing the sunlight. It you move on, that's all you're going to get. My cynical side suggests that, in fact, this is the impression we're supposed to get, we're not supposed to look very closely.

Look more closely. Her right hand is outstretched, resting on the trunk. Her left is tucked under her head, which is oddly lifted up. Perhaps she's in motion, lying down, but the impression one gets upon close examination is that her stomach muscles and neck are engaged. She is holding herself in that position, with no small effort.

Having spent some of my life experimenting with such poses, lying down on branches, I have learned that humans are not jaguars. Not even a jaguar would attempt to rest on his back on a branch, anyways. The secure posture on a branch is belly down, arms and legs dangling, face mashed into the branch. For humans, this is still fairly uncomfortable, and I can hardly imagine a less photogenic posture. In my judgement, the young woman is in a fairly precarious perch, muscles at least lightly engaged to maintain her position. In short, she is posing. The position is not natural, it is not comfortable, and she was not in it for long. She is not a gorgeous panther, half asleep in the sun. She is a beautiful girl, posing, beautifully.

Is she posing for the camera, or just generally posing? Beautiful young people do tend to just generally pose in the normal course of their life. Perhaps she was just trying it out, perhaps she was directed by the photographer, perhaps she is posing for her lover just out of frame. But posing she surely is.

With this in mind, looking through the rest of the series, I, at any rate, note a certain camera-awareness throughout. The general sense that I think we are supposed to get is of candid photos of people chilling out in the warm golden sunlight (or the equally beautiful crisp snow,) but closer examination suggests that while these people were maybe chillaxing a moment ago, they are now posing.

This doesn't necessarily detract from the work, I suppose. I cannot help, though, feeling a certain note of falseness.

It feels very much as if we are supposed to get a specific thing from the work, and that this thing is an illusion that can only be maintained if we don't look very carefully at the pictures. It feels a little like a cheat.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

NoooOooOoo No!

Via ToP I see this article from Kenneth Wajda which asserts that a street photograph isn't any good unless the subject matter is, in some sense, arresting.

On the one hand, I am very subject-forward, philosophically. On the other hand, the piece underplays the role of form. Yes, he asserts that composition matters, but also that it's just basic table stakes. Wajda doesn't seem to think that a piece that is pure form can be street photography, and, somewhat weirdly, cites a long list of photographers all of whom are more or less famous for form over subject.

All of the people in his list have essentially the same skill, which is to see that something that would be banal to the eye becomes interesting when photographed, when framed and stilled. You could tap my on the shoulder and point to any damn scene Walker Evans shot and I'd shrug.

Cartier-Bresson, who Wajda thankfully does not cite, is the acknowledged master of the form over subject game, in a kind of quirky way, but they all did it.

What Wajda seems to be advocating, at least one the face of it, is not merely subject matter but obviousness. It is this, specifically, that I find objectionable. In broad terms, the non-documentary photographer's literal job is to show us something that is non-obvious. Now, to be fair, he's on to something. You can't just take a formally pleasing composition and expect greatness (cf. Ming Thein, and a jillion other less successful formalists), and anyways formally pleasing compositions are kind of a dime a dozen once you get your vision dialed in. Read the book on Miksang and you too can grind out a certain kind of thing endlessly.

There's something going on with Evans and Frank and Abbott and all those people that goes beyond the formal composition, but does not veer in to the "lookit that!" degree of the obvious. The point is that they saw things worth looking at, which were not necessarily obvious. Photographing these things made the thing they saw (?) more obvious. Winogrand took endless pictures of pretty girls, which pictures fall pretty much into the "lookit that!" category, and they're all pretty much in the bin, except the few where there's more to it than a pretty girl.

As Wadje points out, the edit is important. I have to say I was taken aback slightly by this, because this is possibly the most well-established thing ever in photography, but sure, it bears repeating. Which circles neatly around to issues around Winogrand and Maier, which I have gone on about at length in the past.

He is absolutely right that Street Photography as she is currently practiced is boring as shit. Street Photographers love pure form, in a small handful of idioms, and almost literally nobody else does. Ming had his fans who were almost 100% photographers, and was a complete zero outside that fan group for excellent reasons. He, and Eric Kim, and any number of others, are making pictures for photographers and nobody else. I am tempted to draw a line to any number of contemporary art forms, say Abstract Expressionism. Abstract Expressionism is, mostly, loved by people who love it because you're supposed to love it, because they are Serious Art Lovers, not because they see anything in it. Loving it is social signaling, in the same way that loving Street Photography mostly is. "I am part of your group, love me."

This is unfair to Abstract Expressionism, though. These painters were struggling with something, for the most part, trying to get something out and onto the canvas. Whether they succeeded or not is beside the point, they were trying. Your average modern Street Photographer isn't trying to get anything out. They are, like most photographers, trying to "make good photos" whatever that means. For Street Photographers this often means "follows fairly strict rules of form in one of a handful of idioms."

While it's not the only point of photography, it strikes me that street photography as normally construed, is fundamentally about showing us something that is interesting, but mainly after it is photographed. The fleeting moment, uninteresting as it fleets, which is interesting when stilled. The juxtaposition of random elements looks like nothing much in its context, which becomes interesting when carved out and placed into a rectangle. The gestalt which is nothing much in the moment, until reduced, stilled, and committed to the frame, where something interesting is revealed.

What Wadja seems to be describing as desirable is documentary photography, it seems to me. Look, there is something interesting, anyone can see that it is interesting, committed to the photograph that interestingness becomes available to more people. It is merely a record, a document, of what was already there, and does not particularly transform the event.

Not every photograph needs to transform its subject, but street, I think, does. Otherwise it's just documentary. Of, usually, really uninteresting material.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

The Self Portrait

I was traveling these last couple of weeks. One spends, in these episodes, too much time in the company of other travelers, and one of the things other travelers do is photograph themselves in airports. One at least 2 occasions, I observed a young woman examining herself in her phone, making minute adjustments to the lie of hair across her forehead. Clearly in the throes of taking Just The Right Selfie.

I could bang on about the cultural flaws this reveals, but I'm not going to.

Instead I started in thinking about how we think about photographs of ourselves, and what the possibilities are. I am by no means certain I have anything to say except a handful of related observations, but I intend to make those observations. Buckle up.

My constant thesis is that viewing a photograph constitutes in an allegorical but sturdy way a (re-)visit to the time and place of the photograph. You experience something like presence. A photograph of ourself, therefore, constitutes a kind of return to our own past, a moment preserved in the frame from our own personal history. We examine the frame for clues, to help us recall that moment. Sometimes we recall it clearly, and the photo merely cues the recall. Sometimes we don't remember it at all, and will then almost inevitably struggle to reconstruct the moment depicted in the frame, to recall or deduce some fragment.

When we are photographed, whether we take the photo or someone else does, we anticipate this return.

There is, therefore, a substantive difference between being photographed with an expectation of seeing the photo later (selfies, photo booths, portrait sessions, etc) and being photographed with no such expectation (someone photographs you on the street.)

If we expect to see the photograph, or even more-so to possess and control the photograph, we are as the shutter snaps, in that instant, anticipating a return to now. We expect to see ourselves in the photo, to see this moment, at some point in the future. Perhaps only a moment from now, or in a few minutes, or a few days. We pose, to some degree, for ourselves.

The photo-booth is maybe the apotheosis of this specific phenomenon. These are photographs of ourself, several of them, we'll see them very soon, and they are (or can be) private. We pose only for ourself, and given that there are 4 or more frames, we can experiment. We experience a kind of freedom of self-expression. Hence the standard array of funny faces and goofy gestures. It resembles, in a way, prancing in front of the mirror, testing the ways that our appearance corresponds to the way the muscles of our face feel.

When we twist our face into some odd expression, we don't really know what it looks like. We can't see our own face. The mirror and the self-portrait provide a way to connect the physical sensation to the appearance. We develop and refine a kind of proprioception.

At the same time, the photograph provides a return to the past, a portal to that earlier moment, in the way a mirror does not. A mirror shows us the present; a photo, the past.

The more recent the picture (seconds versus minutes versus hours, days, weeks) the more we inspect it for proprioceptive wisdom. As long as we fancy we can recall the way it felt to form that expression, we inspect the results of our efforts. The more distant the photo, the more we struggle instead to remember what was going on, maybe what we were thinking, what our emotions were, or even where and when we were. Still, we wonder what on earth possessed us to make that face, we wonder what physical sensations produced it, usually with an eye to avoiding it in future.

And again, at the moment we are photographed, our behavior in that instant is to a degree shaped by our anticipation of all these things. This is why we mug foolishly in the photo booth, but sit more soberly for the formal portrait. The former is private, "instant", we want to see what we look like when we do this. The latter is more public, and longer term, we want to see what we look like when we're trying to project an air suitable for others.

In all cases, we perform for the camera as if it were a stand-in for ourself. We mug, or sit soberly, in part for our future self, to see what we will look like when we do this.

When we have no anticipation of seeing the picture at all, when someone photographs us on the street or when we notice the CCTV camera in the elevator, much is different. We perform or pose now for a notional audience, an audience that does not include us. We will never return to this moment, but others might. Sometimes we might want them to feel bad, or to like us. Sometimes we hope for this notional audience to admire us.

There is often overlap, to be sure. Our desire to look good might not depend on whether we're going to see the picture or not, perhaps we want to look good no matter what. If not good, then at least respectable. Or funny, or whatever.

Nevertheless when we expect to see the picture, there is an element of standing in front of a mirror; each of us will bring something to our performance, to our pose, on that basis, something which is absent or different when we have no expectation of seeing the photo. And, of course, contrariwise.

The young woman moving her hair slightly to the left where it lands above her eye is experimenting to see how she looks that way. She is exploring the world of possibility in her own appearance, an exploration that is only really possible with the phone selfie and its capacity to let her revisit this moment, this instant of time sitting in the airport, waiting for her flight to board.

And good for her. She looks great.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Still On Holiday

Indeed, as John Paul Jones said, I have not yet begun to vacation. Still, I could not resist sharing this with you all.

Here is a marvelously inexpensive and accessible writing class, for those of you who may be struggling with your artist's statements.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021


I am going on holiday for a couple weeks. Don't get any funny ideas, my savage attack dog and a surly heavily armed dog-sitter will still be here. There won't be much blogging, though.

Be well, enjoy your august, and for god's sake stay out of trouble.

Yes. Yes she is.

Monday, August 2, 2021

On Truthful Representation

Dr. Colberg's most recent book review triggered a kind of cascade in a collection of ideas that have been rattling around my head for a while now, so here we are again.

There's a fair bit going on in his little essay, most of which isn't the focus of my attention here. What I am interested is the idea of a standard, held by Colberg and his colleagues, a standard to which photographers "ought to" aspire: to somehow completely, or at least holistically, present a kind of truth about their subject matter. The idea that a photographer going to Liberia ought to aspire not merely to avoiding grinding out more disaster porn, but also to somehow get at the essence of Liberia, to translate Liberia as a complete thing in some meaningful way to us, to Dr. Colberg, to whomever is the book's audience.

Now, I am rather fond of the idea of digging down to some sort of essence. I agree up to the "some kind of essence" point, completely.

Where I diverge is when we propose that the essence should be somehow complete, it should be whole, and it should be in some sense objective.

I recently saw a remark, an anecdote, in which someone showed a book about (I think) Kenya to some Kenyans, and they said that it didn't look like the Kenya they knew.

Well, let us think about this a little. Kenya is a big place. Lot going on there. Pick two people at random from Kenya's population, and they're pretty likely to have some divergent ideas about what Kenya looks like. They're gonna share some stuff as well, of course, but they're different people.

No photographer will produce a project that "looks like" my conception of even a little place like Bellingham, WA (where I live.) Not even, I think, me. All I could hope for is some sort of slice that I recognize as a slice of how I see it. Maybe even an essential slice, or any rate the slice might boil down to some essence of itself. The world is large, it is complex, you're not gonna get there from here. To propose that photography is the tool to, somehow, "show you" the city of Bellingham in its essence is to misunderstand photography as a tool.

Robert Frank did not show us America, and sure as shit Alec Soth didn't. They both gave us narrow, personal, slices of the thing. Frank's was interesting largely because he saw a small handful of very specific things that were, and remain, particularly salient. Soth was just pandering to bigots in New York. But neither project looks anything like "my America" and they're not supposed to. They are, respectively, Frank's America, and Soth's America.

To propose that the standard to be aimed at is to show the essence of Liberia, to reveal to Dr. Colberg something of the whole reality that is Liberia, is to rig the game so that it cannot be won. Maybe that's the point, maybe we're supposed to know this to be un-winnable, but that is the North Star which should guide us anyway. That's not how I am reading it, I think that the game is in fact being rigged, and occasionally I think it's being rigged on purpose by people who really don't like photography.

What makes it particularly odd, at least to my eyes, is that the same community of critics who want photographers to be in this sense truthful are also constantly reminding us that photographs are incapable of being truthful, which renders the entire philosophical underpinning of this brand of criticism kind of suspect.

This is not to argue in favor is disaster porn, nor do I have an opinion on whether Herzau's Liberia is any good. I don't know, and I'm not terribly interested.

The point is that Colberg's standard for judgement here appears to be rigged, and philosophically untenable.