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Monday, September 20, 2021

The Book of Veles

So there's just photographer, Jonas Bendiksen. Magnum photgrapher. He made a book about this town, Veles, in North Macedonia (and about a literary forgery called "The Book of Veles" about the god Veles, yadda yadda yadda) which town is apparently where a lot of fake news web sites originated for a while. The teens there, I guess, had a cottage industry setting up shitty web sites packed with whatever trash fake news they could gather, and sold ads against them, and made some money. Eager little entrepreneurs!

Bendiksen went there, took some photos, and made a book. An artsy book. You can see a bunch of it here: The Book of Veles. There's fake news quotes and an essay, of course there is.

It turns out that it was a conceptual art project.

Bendiksen went to Veles, sure enough. But he only took photos without people in them. Then he bought some digital models of people, and some software and some digital "clothes" and stuff, and populated his photos with fake people. The essay and the quotes are carefully curated output from an AI text generator, GPT-2. He pumped this thing out there without telling anyone what was fake.

Because, see, it's about fake news! It's fake news about fake news!!!! I gotta say, it is conceptually sound, rigorous. I kind of dig it as an idea, as a project. The actual object itself, meh. I'd have to see it, and honestly I kinda don't care enough.

Evidently it was pretty positively received, people praised the essay as insightful (lol!) and whatnot.

Recently, he was called out on a thing, and came clean (as he had always intended to, he claims) and a few people are popping out of the woodwork with I knew it all along!!! stories. Of course they are.

The gruesome deets are all here: How Jonas Bendiksen Hoodwinked the Photography Industry and they are kind of entertaining.

The reaction, while extremely, almost hilariously tiny, has a strong tinge of OMG so scary that we can be so easily fooled. At least 3 of the 5 people who've noticed this episode at all have expressed this concern.

Ok, so let's think about some things here. Let's just start out with why it worked at all, given that the pictures do actually look kind of wonky in hindsight and the essay is unquestionably a shitshow of gibberish (I've seen GPT-2 output, and it's not very convincing.)

The reason it worked is simply that people weren't looking at it very hard. There was nothing challenging in the photos, no "Donald Trump has a tail!" or "Joe Biden is molesting a teenager!" photos. It's all "anonymous dude waits for a bus" material which there is literally no reason in the world to fake. "This person is in an office", "here is a woman sitting on a bed", "look, a dude in the window" it's all who-gives-a-shit photos.

The purpose of this kind of documentary photography is not to reveal truth, to support any facts, or any of that. It serves exclusively as evidence that the photographer was at the place, and also that the photographer has mastered the sort of glum washed out bullshit pictures of nothing that pass for Art Photography these days. That's it. A glance, and you're done. There is no reason in the world to suspect a fake, these stupid pictures are not even hard to take, and god knows there's a lot of them. There isn't even any reason to look at them seriously. The point is that the photos exist, proof that the artist "did the work" we don't need to check by actually looking at the photos.

As we shall see, faking them is much harder than taking them.

Similarly, the essay was the result of training GPT-2 on reams of news articles about how Veles is the center of Fake News, so it was literally a rehash of the standard narrative. Another glance serves to verify that the essay is saying more or less the right things, and we move on. "Brilliant book from Bendiksen, so necessary, so important, exposes vital truths, blah blah blah."

If you did notice that the people in the pictures looked a little weird, or that the essay is pretty incoherent, would you say anything?

Of course not. You don't want to be the guy who says "that dude looks fake" only to be confronted with that dude in the flesh. There's no percentage in saying I think this might be fake, and anyways who the hell would fake some giant nothing-burger like this? No, I'm not gonna say anything, I just don't care enough.

Would you call out the essay and say "this looks like GPT-2 output" or not? Again, what if the dude wrote it himself for real, and is just a terrible writer? Now you'd feel bad, right?

There is a point to be made here about the critical apparatus that received this thing: that critical apparatus is garbage. It's not that this thing is fake, it's that it sucks. The essay, if examined with any care whatsoever, would have been clearly revealed as junky rehashes of the standard narrative — because, let us review, that is literally what it is. But most essays in these things are incoherent drivel. The pictures are bullshit pictures of nothing that document only that Bendiksen was in Veles. Again, who cares if they're fake, the real issue is that the pictures serve no purpose, carry no weight, except to tick a few standard boxes in the standard Documentary Art Book punch list.

The problem is not that the book is fake, but that, taken as it was intended to be taken, it sucks. It sucks just like all its crummy mates.

If someone had had the cojones to say "this thing sucks" and then looked at it carefully, being amped up, they probably would have noticed that the pictures and essay feel super weird, and they might have said something about that. But no, the book was completely critique-proof, because it was about Fake News, So Awful, What A Scourge. You can write the review ("so necessary, so important") from the press release, and I am absolutely certain that the reviews, if any, were written just like that.

Because the critical apparatus that consumes books like this is absolute trash.

Ok, so there's that.

Is this thing truly a harbinger of doom? Is this a sign that news photography is over, and that we're about to be destroyed by fakes, now that they are so easy to make?

First of all, they're not easy to make. If Bendiksen had simply hired some models, he could have shot these pictures in an afternoon. As it was, he spent weeks or months screwing around with fake lighting to get his digital people lit right, he had to turn his photos into 3D models to shove his fake people into, and he had to pose his fake people by hand. On the one hand, this will probably get incrementally easier over time. On the other hand, this tech has been around in various forms for decades, and it's still a hell of a lot of work.

I warrant that, in general, fake news will be made with flesh and blood models, not digital ones, for quite a long time and possibly forever.

Furthermore, to assume that easily faking a photo equates to faking "the news" is to wildly misunderstand the role of photos in the making of the narrative.

You cannot just bang out a couple fake pictures of Trump with a second head. No single photo ever convinced anyone of anything, a photo serves to reify other material. A photo is a single tile of evidence, or of feeling, or of representation, or whatever, that either fits into a gestalt or does not. It doesn't matter if it's real or fake, if it doesn't fit into the mental world picture we already have, we're going to reject it.

It is the world-picture as a complete thing that needs to be buggered to float fake news, to support fake news, to in the larger sense build a narrative of the world and of truth. There are way easier ways to do that than dicking around with digital models, at least for now, and to be honest I don't see how it's ever going to get easy.

Digital manipulation is in the toolbox now, everyone uses it to enhance their version of the story. Yes, your guys do it too. Also, they crop photos and fiddle with color balance and tone, which are probably just as powerful as posing some video game avatar at a bus stop. Is it important? Is it the nuclear bomb technology we've been fearing?

Probably not.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Dating Butturini's London

It recently came to my attention that there's some quibbles over when the photos in Butturini's book, London were actually made. Most sources say 1969, but one apparently suggests 1968. There could hardly be a more minor detail to obsess over, and yet, here we are. You see, I had fairly confidently asserted 1968 for reasons which I did not even remember.

Naturally, took offense at the very idea that these photos had been made in 1969, and set out to prove by internal evidence of the pictures themselves. There's not a lot to go on, but let us see what we can see.

First, a photo of a man in a hat bearing, among other things, the date "Saturday, June 21st." The days of the week move relative to the dates, so let us check June 21st for 1968 and 1969. Well, in 1968 June 21st was a Friday, but in 1969 a Saturday. Keeping in mind that this is the late 60s, and that man is wearing that hat, which he probably made himself. One might be justified in supposing that his grasp of the principles of the calendar may have been shaky. Nevertheless, this suggests summer of 1969 for, at least, this photo.

Next up, in the background of this photo we see a poster for "Junior's Wailing," a song by some band named Steamhammer. Released in 1969. Again, this is 50 years ago, and errors could have crept in. But another fairly crisp vote for 1969.

There's a bunch of protest photos, with often fairly distinctive banners and signs. I dare say a dive into the morgue of this London paper or that would turn up the same signs and banners, and thus offer exact dates, but here I am in Bellingham. However, one of the signs was pretty weird, "NO GREEKS IN VIET NAM" so I googled that.

It turns out that there were several signs made by the Poster Workshop which silkscreened posters for people between 1968 and 1971. I dropped them a line after identifying two of their posters in Butturini's pictures, the one about Greeks and another with WORKERS' CONTROL on it (which appears twice in the photos above, although in the background, and obscured.)

Here are better pictures of these posters, from the Workshop web site:

Amazingly a man named Sam Lord replied: WORKERS' CONTROL was printed Oct 25, 1968, and NO GREEKS in the winter and spring of 1969. Again, a snippet of evidence pointing toward 1969 and away from 1968.

The only reference I can find to Greeks in Vietnam is the Greek Australians in the Australian Defence Forces, who.. may have been deployed as a group in the Vietnam conflict? Possibly there was some British outcry against this, or perhaps it means something quite different.

The WORKERS' CONTROL signs, dated on Oct 25, 1968 by Mr. Lord, may well have been printed for the large anti-US demonstration that took place near the US Embassy on Oct 27, 1968 which was located at that time on Grosvner Square, very near where Butturini was to later take all kinds of photos. It is possible that Butturini was in town for that protest, and that some of the material he shot was from that march, and other material from later ones.

UPDATE: This poster also appears in one of the protest photos as well, twice. This poster, and the WORKERS' poster, are at least associated with the Oct 27 march. The online sources show those two posters appearing over and over at that march (although, obviously, any time later more could have been printed, and people may simply have saved their signs):

Notably, though, the protestors in this photo seem to be more or less warmly dressed. Given the prevalence of jackets and ties, it's not certain that the season is fall, but it's at least consistent with fall.

There are a couple of other things which I feel ought to have been easy to date, but which I made no headway on. The Guardian's ad campaign is surely well-dated, and the poster for West Side Story would be consistent with some showing of the 1961 film (it is the film poster, not for a stage production) should have turned up something, but there seems to have been no well-documented official re-release of the film at all in this interval. Likely some local theater was simply running it. There's at least one theater at Piccadilly Circus that was running more or less random popular films during this interval.

Then we come up against this thing. In the background, the Criterion Theater at Piccadilly Circus. On the front of it, we can see that what is playing now is "The Real Inspector Hound" and that it is "Dazzlingly Funny." I am pretty sure this is the source of my certainty that Butturini shot the thing in 1968, but memory fails and I cannot be sure.

Now, it might not actually be playing at this moment but certainly no production has yet supplanted it.

Various online records, for example here, show that Hound (a Tom Stoppard play) opened in the summer of 1968, and was supplanted by other productions in due course. Notably "Brief Lives" was running over the summer of 1969.

My first thought was that Butturini must have gone to London twice. My second thought was that, possibly, the Tom Stoppard record might be snarled up, and some premiere dates have slipped a year. Perhaps everyone is relying on a single, erroneous, source.

My acquaintance, Dennis Low, who holds an actual humanities Ph.D., checked several other references. A biography of Ronnie Barker (who played in the premiere) also indicates that Hound ran from June to December of 1968. This reference is internally inconsistent: Brief Lives. The text makes it fairly clear that "Brief Lives" (not Hound) was playing at the Criterion in the summer of 1968, but the titles, links, and snippets elsewhere say 1969 very distinctly.

It is, I think, possible that Hound ran in 1969 and Brief Lives in 1968, and that some common source has muddled the two up, and is cited by everyone. It is also perfectly possible that Hound ran in 1968.

At this point we have either a fairly dramatic screwup in the dating of theater works, or we have two visits by Butturini to London, one in 1968 and one in 1969. The latter may well have produced most of the pictures in the book, which was itself made with remarkable speed (coming out in late fall of 1969.) Those were headier times, though, when people perhaps didn't agonize so much over things.

Dr. Low simply asked the Italians, and after a little digging, they indeed confirmed that Butturini did visit London on a photographic assignment in 1968! One can at least imagine that he took some photos of London that year, and was inspired to return and make something of what he'd seen.

I admit that I kind of hope we've uncovered a problem with the dating of Tom Stoppard's play, but that hope is rather fading at the moment.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Don't Overthink It

My neighbor welds. He makes things out of junk, as is kind of a Thing here in Bellingham, that upcycled art deal that infests every small artsy town. My neighbor makes birds out of metal crap. They're pretty cool, in fact, unpretentious, he names them and writes little witty bios: This is Jimmy. He watches you do yard work, and passes judgement on you.

What interests me most here is that my neighbor, somehow, sees a piece of crap and imagines it as a bird's beak, or wing, or whatever, and sometimes that visualization is moderately astonishing. It always works very well, what's hard to grasp is how one would see that thing in a pile of metal crap, and realize how great it would be as a beak, or a foot. So, I asked him about this, how do you visualize these things?

His answer surprised me in the moment, although perhaps it shouldn't have. He says that he doesn't think about it. The birds make themselves. If he thinks about it too much it doesn't happen.

This struck me especially, because this is pretty much how I make photobooks. I just throw them together, sometimes very very fast, sometimes kinda fast. Which flies in the face of conventional wisdom which dictates that the assembly of a photobook should take as long as possible, and involve as much pain and suffering as your body can endure.

Quite apart from the fact that this sounds really shitty to me, and most definitely not any fun, it also doesn't work for me at all. The books make themseves.

There was an article in The New Yorker, a zillion or maybe 13 years ago, about Eureka moments, and the brain science behind them. It related the story of a forest fire fighter who invented a technique under extreme pressure: he and his crew were booking it up a hill through low brush, with a fire climbing behind them very fast. At some moment it occurred to him to set a fire where he was, and to follow that one up the hill. His fire would consume the brush, making the larger fire chasing him much less dangerous as it passed over him. Which all came to pass. The other guys died. You can read the story here.

The elements of inspiration, or at least of this kind of inspiration, are: (a) a deep base of relevant knowledge (b) substantial rumination on that relevant knowledge, leading to (c) in a moment of high pressure a (d) sudden perception which you are irrationally certain of the rightness of.

The firefighter dude, Dodge, had a lot of experience, he knew in an intimate and deep way how fires worked. And it simply came to him what do, he knew it was right, and he did it. He didn't rationalize it, he didn't think it through, he didn't calculate anything. He just did it, and he survived.

Now, I'm not fighting forest fires, I'm just trying to jam some words and pictures onto pieces of paper.

Last weekend I was taking a break from my kids and took some pictures out in rural Washington.

They look a little weird, right? Well, that's what happens when you bang the ISO all the way up to "HI 2" which Nikon doesn't even dare call ISO 12,800 but rather "3200 +2EV" which you'd think would be the same. I assume the "image quality" is so poor that even the fairly lax rules for digital camera ISO kind of fall apart.

What the hell was I doing? I asked myself that exact question. I am never going to print these. I am never going to use them in a project. These are not pictures that have any practical use for me. I don't practice, as such, and even if I did these are not exactly honing my reflexes or whatever. And why the weird camera setting? (other than the obvious "well, the bulldozer is kind of dark" which is a lame excuse and had other, better, solutions.)

I'm not gonna lie, I spend a surprising amount of time taking pointless pictures. I am acutely aware of when I am taking photos for a well defined project, and when I am not. While it's not true that absolutely none of the non-project pictures ever amounts to anything, it's really really close. I've probably used no more than half a dozen non-project pictures in anything and I have, well, rather more than six of them. This is something which has frustrated me in the past, I actually mutter things like "what the hell am I even doing?" to myself as a snap away. So what gives?

My answer, or perhaps just a rationalization for what is ultimately pointless behavior, is that I am filling my brain up with facts about how my camera works, what things look like when they are photographed, and so on. I am building, extending, and ruminating on domain knowledge that might some day be relevant to something I want to do.

Note that there is no plan here. This is not a curriculum that runs on rails. This is just random intellectual junk that gets put into the attic. What function it has, we cannot easily know. Is most of this wasted, and if we only knew, we could do only the few necessary things? Or do we in fact need the vast pile of rubbish in order for inspiration to pop out? In order to generate that quick sense of "yes, yes, yes, there... no there, yes, aaaand DONE!" that characterizes how I make shit?

I dunno. But I kinda like the apple tree. Looks sort of like infrared photography!

Monday, September 13, 2021


Some of you may remember that there was a thing back around 2010 where some random dude had some glass plates that were maybe Ansel Adams lost negatives, etc etc. This story, by way of A.D. Coleman, picks up where that left off. Let us return to that heady time, briefly.

In broad strokes what happened was some dude named Rick Norsigian acquired a bunch of glass plate negatives some years before 2010. They were scenes from Yosemite, so naturally he figured they were probably Ansel Adams pictures, and spent quite a bit of effort finding someone who would back him up on this. This effort was hampered by the fact that the negatives are pretty definitely not Ansel Adams negatives, that worthy being pretty careful about not losing track of his things.

At some point, around 2010, Norsigian found a credible-sounding band of know-nothings willing to back his play, which band included some pretty sketchy characters, but whatever. There was a big News Thing. Are they? Aren't they? Because, of course, right? These column inches practically write themselves! Are they maybe done by some guy named Brooks, instead? Brooks's descendants have some prints of similar pictures! OMG! So fun!

A.D. covered this with evident delight as it unfolded, excoriating everyone involved including various Ansel Adams-aligned groups.

Among the many things Coleman notes: If these negatives had been verified as Adams's work, then the negatives, but not the pictures, would belong to Norsigian, substantially reducing that latter's upside. At the same time, though, no Adams negative has ever been sold, they're all in an archive someplace, so the negatives themselves would probably have some real value as, essentially, museum-collectible novelties. Finally, if they had been verified as Adams' work, they would even then simply not be important; we have tons of Adams work from all eras, and these pictures were never selected by the artist as part of his offical ouevre, etc.

So, in a way, there was never any way this wasn't going to be a nothing-burger, but it was very exciting to watch, and we certainly got to enjoy a lot of bad behavior all around.

The industry of trying to turn uninteresting piles of old negatives into money existed before this, and carries on today.

Ok, so there's that.

As this was going on a nobody named Melinda Pillsbury-Foster (MPF) attempted, without much luck, to stick her oar in. Her grandfather owned one of several photography concessions in Yosemite Park in the early 1900s, and his studio burned down in 1927. Before that, though, he'd taken lots of pictures, and sold postcards and whatnot in the park. MPF has a web site about grandpa which is a bit of a maze. She has presented some not unconvincing evidence that the negatives are in fact Pillsbury negatives.

Now, the "Brooks shot these" theory is based on some prints that the Brooks family has, that they attribute to Mr. Brooks. There has been some difficulty in establishing whether or not Brooks was in the park shooting with a glass plate camera, but of course 100 years down time anything is possible.

However, it is known (I think) that Pillsbury sold prints, and it certainly seems to me possible that Brooks simply bought a couple Pillsburies, and that his grandchildren have, for whatever reason, come to the conclusion that their grandpa shot them.

It is known that Pillsbury worked extensively in Yosemite with an appropriate camera, it is at least well argued that some of the negatives are his, it is known that Pillsbury sold prints. The "Brooks bought the prints" theory is at least plausible.

Ok, so Norsigians plates are maybe Pillsbury's pictures, saved from the fire somehow. Given that Pillsbury's archive, such as it is, is definitely not as well-provenanced as Adams's archive, it's certainly more credible that this is a box "mysteriously saved" from Pillsbury's studio than from "mysteriously saved" from the other fire (so many fires, eh?) that burned Adams's studio.

Maybe you think this is the bonkers part. Oh, sweet naive child. No, the bonkers part is this:

MPF is now accusing Adams of burning Pillsbury's studio, at the behest of, or at least with the co-operation of, the National Park Service, and having run off with Pillsbury's archive, and passed off much of the work as his own.

Adams is well known to have been capable of real viciousness, but mainly in the form of the written word. Certainly a relentless self-promoter. Also, recall his flirtation with maybe taking up the libertine lifestyle like his friend Edward Weston (scotched when Virginia told him he couldn't.) Adams was not a nice fellow, and was certainly an opportunist.

I find it difficult to believe he'd set a fire, though. He seems more of a "write a stern letter" fellow than a "let's take this outside" fellow, and I have to say MPF presents (as far as I can see) no evidence whatsoever beyond 2nd and 3rd-hand testimonies. To be honest, her writing does not inspire one to much confidence in her mental state. Unhinged might be a bit much, but, you know...

It is not even quite clear what the shape of the conspiracy MPF thinks she has uncovered even is. There seems to be some notion that Stephen Mather, the then director of the National Park Service, had a plan to turn the park system into a profitable thing, and that he conspired with the people who would later become the modern Curry Company to consolidate the concessions in Yosemite by various means, including a little judicious arson. Adams, we are to presume, was some bush league yahoo who had a pack of matches, the eye of Virginia Best (the Best Studio become the Adams studio after Virginia married Ansel), and a camera.

I mean, Mather was an early 20th century industrialist, and the fire did help with that consolidation, and the Curry Company, as well as the Ansel Adams Studio, did indeed come to pass as the gloriously successful survivors, and some stuff did burn down. There were definitely winners and losers, there were arguments and conflicts. You can definitely thumbtack a lot of shit to a wall and connect it all with red yard, down in your Bat Cave.

Regardless, I love this story. How fantastically salacious! How glorious! What fun!

It's a perfect epilogue to the Norsigian saga, which is no doubt why AD included it in his most recent piece.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

NFTs, Value, Communities

I wrote some stuff about NFTs a while ago, these crypto-currency related ways to "buy" art, which people keep struggling to understand. In the piece I point out that traditional art derives its value largely from the activities of those widely hated gatekeepers: the curators, dealers, publishers, collectors, and no doubt others.

Let's back up a bit. Or maybe a lot.

Something is valuable if there's a community of people who think it's valuable. A loaf of bread is valuable because lots of people would like to eat it. A dollar bill is valuable because, collectively, we've agreed that you can swap that dollar bill for a lot of other things, so many different things that there's practically certain to be something you want in there. A Monet is valuable because it's attractive to look at, and because we collectively agree that it's valuable.

A loaf of bread also has utility, you can eat the damned thing. A Monet has a lot less utility, but it is at least pretty and if pressed you could fashion a crude shelter out of it.

A dollar bill doesn't have a heck of a lot of utility. You can snort coke through it, if you don't have a $100 bill. Which, if you have a bunch of coke, you probably don't. Other than that it's pretty useless by itself, although it gets a kind of knock-on utility in that you can swap it for stuff like bread.

Bitcoins don't have much utility at all, they don't even exist hard enough to snort coke through, and the knock-on utility is pretty limited. You can trade them for other, even less useful, cryptocurrency, you can unransom your ransomwared computers and that is... about it. Even trading them for USD is apparently super dicey and subject to change without notice.

You can also buy NFTs if you swap your Bitcoins for Ethereum tokens. An NFT is essentially a cryptocoin that's "connected" to some sort of other digital object, could be anything, but it's often a picture. So, in a sense, this is just more sloshing pretend coins around. They're just coins with pictures on them.

Anyways. Cryptocurrencies, including NFTs, have value for the same reason anything else does: a community agrees that it has value. Utility is a different thing.

I observed in my earlier piece that NFTs seem to lack any coherent social system for creating and maintaining value. The NFT market lacks the mechanisms, the gatekeepers, that produce value for a Monet, and I felt that was a problem. Well, bless their hearts, the NFT market is now offering up a solution.

Props to them, right? They recognized the problem, and now we have white papers (i.e. blog posts) offering up the answer to the problem in a suitable distributed Libertarian way: communities.

Crytopunks, which are shitty little graphics of characters tied to NFTs, are the canonical example here. They are valuable because people want them, and apparently there is an active community of people who want them. They talk to one another using something called discord, they create consortia to buy specific punks, and so on. They decorate their social media with the graphics that they own, or own shares of. There's a whole thing going on here, without (supposedly) any central gatekeeping, no firm hand on the tiller, it's just an emergent social phenomenon.

Cool, right? I mean, this is legitimately a solution to the problem I called out in March.

What it is not is stable.

The crowd as a setter of value is notoriously fickle. Even stuff with super high utility, like wheat, has to have a complex and highly regulated market just to ensure that, mostly, the people who grow it get paid more than it costs to grow it. The US dollar, like any national currency, is heavily managed to maintain its value at something vaguely resembling a constant.

When the crowd sets the value by itself the value tends to both to fluctuate, and to be easily manipulated. To the extent that you can manipulate the crowd, you can manipulate the value. Worse, vice versa, creating the potential for ugly feedback loops. The value, whether manipulated or not, tends to be volatile. When in the normal bouncing up and down it takes a downward leap that scares The Crowd, the value can (and usually does, eventually) drop to zero, and then game is over. Once the crowd loses faith, it will not obligingly assign value to the thing any more, at least not a value incommensurate with its utility.

The value of wheat will recover from a catastrophic crash, because it can be made into bread, which people want to eat. The value of a cryptopunk will stay zero forever once the crowd loses faith, because it has zero utility.

There is a secondary problem in that not everything that is NFTable is compatible with a robust community of fans that set a value. A single photograph, for instance, seems unlikely to inspire a large enough social following (except, perhaps, in very special circumstances.) Collections of things, whether it be "a band, and their songs" or "10,000 cryptopunk character graphics" seem well suited to this model.

Yes, people are experimenting with fractionalizing single artworks, but I am having trouble seeing how this goes anywhere. The social value of "woo, I own 1/10000 of a fairly ugly photograph" is not, as far as I can discern, very high. The little toon dudes that are cryptopunks, I get that. I mean, they're dumb, but whatever, they're recognizable and compatible with coolness in a way that some Very Serious Photograph is not.

I daresay it's impossible to really characterize what things work and what things don't, but if you can't imagine how a community could rally around a thing, wrap themselves in it, and use it to signal their community membership in various, fun, creative ways, then it's probably not something that's going to work.

The Beeple "one large artwork, one large buyer" model is not this, not at all. It seems to me to be a simple aping of the Fine Art Gatekept model, except without any gatekeepers, and thus no sustainable way to generate and maintain value.

The sage continues. Let's see what these idiots do next!

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Something to Look At

Here's a picture by Andy Barnham, British, former military, currently a working photographer:

Andy's web site is here. I think it's fair to say that this photo is not much related to the things he does today, for pay. But let's look at it.

First impression is that it's a gun, and there's a couple dudes. I notice fairly quickly that one of the dudes is in motion, and there's some mist around. After another beat, maybe, you realize that the gun has just fired, there's a shell casing hitting the ground behind the gun and at least some of the mist appears in fact to be smoke drifting out of the gun itself, presumably from the recent shot.

The guy in motion is weirdly similar, to my eye, to a green plastic "army guy" figure. I almost expect a flat plastic base under his feet. But he's not a figurine, he's an actual dude, and he's on his way somewhere. He's holding a tool I do not recognize, but which is probably obvious to an artilleryman.

The dude standing near the gun may have just fired it (it looks as if he might be holding the lanyard in his left hand?) and is looking I want to say almost pensively at the gun. Possibly he's slightly stunned by the incredibly loud noise he's just experienced. He seems oddly still, feet firmly planted, in contrast to our other dude.

The ethnicity of the guys is vague. They could land anywhere in a fairly broad range. Spanish? White? Arab? Persian? Endless others, really.

The whole thing is subtle, but very dynamic once you sort out what you're looking at. It's austere in design.

Normally when we see a howitzer in action, there's a lot more crew visible. Wikipedia says a crew of 1+7 (which I assume means 8 people?) is normal for this gun (a D-30, according to Andy.) Often we see a whole bunch of these in a row, blazing away. This picture with one gun, two dudes, and almost nothing whatsoever visible in the background, is unusual. I don't know anything much about artillery doctrine. Nevertheless I look at this, and I suspect that most people would also, and I speculate that it's not a standard military action.

It puts me in mind of the C.S. Forester novel The Gun which is about a large, but single, piece of ordnance and the various guerilla crews that acquire and operate it to varying results.

Considered, as I prefer, as a device which transports us in a sense to the scene, this particular photo takes us to an oddly empty place, with no real clues as to where in the larger world it might be.

What can we make of this photo?

The thing that caught my attention here is just how open this picture is. It can be anything. It could be an advertisement for a weapons manufacturer, or a recruitment poster for the army. It could be an anti-war poster. It could be a journalism. It could be a scene in a film. It could mean "yay, war!" it could mean "war is hell!" it could mean "death to capitalists" or "death to communists" or "Death to the French!"

It happens that what we're looking at is training. This probably explains where there is only a single visible gun, presumably the British crew is training the Afghans how to let the thing off without losing their fingers in the process, and you don't need a whole bunch of guns to to that. You also might reasonably not have the crew huddled around the thing until they get reasonably skilled at not losing their fingers.

Videos of the thing going off suggest strongly that there's a fair bit of territory around the back of it where you don't want to stand when it goes bang.

Even with this part of the story, the meaning of the picture is almost completely open. We can examine it for facts, develop a complete theory of what's happening here, and still have no notion of what it means either in terms of the intention of the photographer, or even our own reaction. To a large extent, our interpretation is likely to rely on who's firing the gun, and at whom, if anyone, it's being fired.

We can't even date this picture with any precision. I don't think there's a single tell in it which narrows it down to closer than a decade or two at best (possibly the fatigues?) but the gun itself is a design that's been in use for more than 50 years. For all I know this literal gun is 50 years old. To a civilian like me, this could be any conflict, anywhere, any time since maybe 1970. I have no idea who is firing it, and no idea who they're firing it at.

In general, I disapprove of any howitzer being fired at anyone, but even for a relative pacifist like me that rule is squishy. Maybe these are genuinely good guys, and they're using this thing in a way I approve of. I have no way of knowing.

It's a photograph with real geopolitical force, it's a giant gun, it's a machine for killing and destroying, designed specifically and solely to project murderous force. This isn't some picture of a flower. You'd think there'd be some way to make sense of it, to judge it, to make meaning, but there really is not without really quite a lot of additional info.

The best I can do, really, is that it's a photograph of men tending a machine whose sole function is the destruction of other men, miles away, who are similarly tending machines whose sole function is to destroy the men in the photograph. It is a howitzer and at the same time a kind of magic mirror.

Shells go whizzing in, shells come whizzing out. Who is to know which is which?

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Crit: James Cockroft, Eid al Adha on expired film (and Small Art)

If it occurs to you to make some sort of comment about religion here, maybe don't.

Disclosure, I like James, I know James a little bit, I am predisposed to like pretty much anything James does.

James Cockroft made this zine, which you can read about in his blog post about it, where you can also see the photos in their original form. It's about his family's celebration of Eid al Adha in 2021, and he made it on some expired Lomography film he had in the fridge. Stick with me, ok? I know, I know, shut up. Just... stick with me.

Here's a video flip-through, so you can see the zine itself. Note the typo in the title.

So what is this thing? It's vernacular photography, for sure. It's not done in anything like a traditional photographic method, where you shoot a bunch and throw most of them away. There are 31 photos here, which is most of the roll. James doesn't seem to say what pictures, if any, he cut, but at a guess they're the ones that were literally unsalvageable. Roughly, he went and shot a few pictures and put all of them out there, in something a lot like chronological order. You can see the narrative, which is simply a sequence of things happening in the order they happened.

In terms of what you're supposed to do as a photographer, this is virtually the complete opposite.

Technically, the photos are terrible. They're grainy, unsharp, the colors are wonky, the framing is haphazard, etc etc. We could go on for days beating these things up for technique.

It is furthermore clear from James' discussion that there is no conceptual rigor here, he's not formally rejecting the strictures of photography to criticize photography, or whatever. There is no Serious Art Practice in play here, it's some dude dicking around with shitty film in a worse camera.

I love this thing. Unambiguously. I think it is simply fantastic.

Why on earth would I love this thing? There are two reasons, one concrete, the other abstract. Concrete first.

I don't know James' deal. What I tell myself is that he's a white dude who married into Islam for love, converted (as one does) and has embraced a religion that is widely despised in America, perhaps especially in his home state of Texas. He's all in, he appears to give not a single shit about the idea that there are probably rednecks nearby who would spit in his face.

In these pictures, he's documented something which is to my eye wonderful. I'm an ignorant agnostic, raised Christian-adjacent, but this looks to me like some apotheosis of Islam in America. The settings are relentlessly American, the people equally relentlessly Islam. We're used to guys in robes with cell phones but they're all Saudi princes, not J. Random Dude sitting on a leather couch somewhere in Texas just like any Dallas Cowboys fan. We see, without even realizing it, how that melting pot business works. Islam can be perfectly at home in America, there is no baked-in conflict. Any conflict is something we're making up (which does not make it less real, natch.)

The expired film look fits perfectly here, because there is something very much American to the shitty, faded, grainy, snapshot. Sure, people took photos everywhere all the time, but at least to me the Old Snapshot is distinctly a piece of Americana. A European or an Indian might just as well recognize these things as marks of their own personal history, their own family ephemera. That would be all to the good, if these pictures root equally well in your own personal history, so much the better.

But keep in mind, these are all things that I am adding. None of this is really in there, it's stuff that occurs in my mind when I study the book. What was in James' mind when he shot it, and when he made it, is almost certainly not any of this at all. His intentions seem to nothing more than family, and faith, the joy of those things, and maybe a bit of the mundane minutiae of life. The book is pretty clearly no more or less than life unfolding.

I see these things, this "cultural criticism" or whatever, not because the artist is telling me shit, but because the artist is cheerfully saying "Yo, here's my life, cool huh?" and I, by observing these slices of his life, perceive (or imagine I do) the cultural milieux that underlies them.

The second reason I love this, the abstract one, is that this is something I am calling Small Art, and I love Small Art.

What on earth is Small Art?

Let's think about Big Art. The Serious Art Photographer (see also painters, sculptors, and so on) generally wants to make things that are at home anywhere. The object is to make things that can live, can breathe, can speak, in a gallery or a museum or in a wealthy patron's home. Placing your work in those places is, after all, how you get paid. I get it, I am not opposed to Big Art in this sense. Big Art, though, is a rat race and a maze of gatekeepers and tastemakers whose job it is to create much of the value here.

Small Art is art that isn't that. It's Art that only lives, that only speaks, in a narrow space that generally is not a gallery or museum or patron's home. Being constrained, maybe it only says Small things, but it needn't.

Theater, I am going to claim, is Small Art. It only lives on the stage, and for the audience. Once it's over, it's over. Tomorrow night, there will be a new show, and it's a new thing. Probably very similar to tonight's show, but not tonight's show. Record it, broadcast, and it dies. Maybe it also becomes something else, but the original thing is dead.

I can attest that Arthur Miller in a small theater with 30 people in the audience absolutely fucking sings. With 2000 people in the audience in a large and fancy theater it's on life support already. Record it and it's all over. You can make a movie, but that's a new thing, a different thing. The same words and ideas can translate, but the movie isn't the play, it's a translation of the play.

Small means something about the natural home for the Art. It can be small in terms of time, or of place, or both. It can be small in terms of specific place, or general type of place. You can do Arthur Miller anywhere, but I swear to you that a really strong bunch of actors and a small theater is going to be the best possible home.

Nobody would claim that Arthur Miller's plays say only Little Things, or that they are not Serious Art. They manifestly are. But they only live in small spaces.

Back to James' book.

The natural home for this work, per the intention of the artist, is a zine.

Imagine this thing as a book from MACK or any serious publisher of art books: it wouldn't be this book, it would be an overly precious reproduction of this book. It would be a copy, intended to be over-examined, over-thought, to be reviewed and placed into context with other Serious Artists, and all that stuff that you do with Big Art. It would die in the hands of any Serious Publisher. Not because Serious Publishers are clumsy or stupid, but because this object's home is somewhere else. It isn't made for that.

You could make something in an edition of 400 with heavy cream colored paper with just the right texture, a foldout or two, and massive heavy cover boards, but it wouldn't be this. You can make a passable movie starting from an Arthur Miller script, but it's not "Death of a Salesman" on a small stage. Not even close.

Such a thing would probably be understood as a bold criticism of contemporary photographic practice, or as a political statement about racism in America, or, or, or. Some Big Statement, not a Small Statement. Now you can, and I did, make some pretty Big Statements about James' zine, but those are things that I made and added, they're not things the artist put in there. A Steidl book would make the Big Statement for me, would tell me. A Steidl book would probably add an essay to tell me, but even if it didn't, the sheer weight of the book would let me know that Big Statements are lurking.

Just take a moment to imagine a book, or a gallery show, or a collectible 16x24 (inches or feet) print. Visualize it and sit with it a moment.

James' zine, being Small, permits me to do what I want, to say what occurs to me, but it makes no demands. It does not insist on Bigness, it can just be some snaps of joy, of faith, of life.

The artist put in something profoundly honest and straightforward, something local, something personal, something in that sense Small.

Small Art won't pay the bills, generally. But it is closer to the people, closer to the audience, more accessible, than Big Art can ever be.

If you want people to see your photos, staple them to lampposts.