Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Content vs. Form II

A contemporary theory of book design, whether it is the only one, the dominant one, or merely a major one I do not care, runs something as follows.

The design of a book, especially the covers, spine, endpapers, and front-matter, are intended to capture the reader, to bring the reader to the book, and to ease them into the content of same. At that point, design ought to drop out of consciousness, to disappear, and to become a set of silent gestures which ease the consumption of the content. Design in the text block should not, as a rule, be noticed, which is not the same as to propose that it should be absent. Rather, the indications and information that serve the reader are simply clear and present at all times.

Book design, in general, can intrude, or absent itself from the consciousness. On a separate axis, design can help, or hinder the process of reading the book.

In general, contemporary theory proposes that all design should help rather than hinder, and that exterior design should intrude (in good ways) while interior design ought to disappear.

In short: when I approach a book, I am conscious of its book-ness and find it attractive; when I am reading a book, I am oblivious to its book-ness, and am captivated entirely by its content while finding it easy and pleasant to read.

None of these categories, of course, have hard boundaries. Grey areas abound.

Photobooks appear to be mostly made by designers. What happens when you give designers their head is that you get a lot of very intrusive design. All but the very best designers seem to be incapable of trying to make design that's invisible. At one end of the cash scale you get Apple, and at the other end you get photobooks.

A gatefold, like a crease in an automobile's bodywork, is essentially an admission of defeat. Which is not to say that you shouldn't ever do either of them, but you should be aware that you've been beaten by the content because you're not good enough at the job.

In the comments on the previous article in this series, a commenter made reference to the experience of the book-as-object, which is a common conceit in the photobook community. Nobody talks about the experience of the book-as-object when they're talking about Tolstoy, unless they're talking about some absurd collectible edition bound in alligator, but this sort of talk is essentially de rigueur in the world of photobooks. "Ooo, lookit the embossing on the cover, Marge" and so on.

I could argue that this is just wrongheaded, and in a way I kind of am. But the point I want to emphasize is that this is a difference, a characteristic of photobooks which is different from the ways we think of normal books. Photobooks are, by design, frequently made specifically so that the design is intrusive. The form of the thing constantly intrudes, which is the exact opposite of what people do who make books that other people actually want to buy.

It can, obviously, work very well, at least in theory. American Origami uses an absolutely maddening design which essentially dominates the experience of reading the book, making it almost impossible to focus coherently on the content (my review can be read here if you don't recall it.) The design creates a book-inside-a-book structure which plays pretty well with the content, which emphasizes and clarifies the content in interesting ways. It's not a perfect book by any means, but the idea has some merit, and it's a good illustration of what the photobook design crowd is going for.

If you're going for this level of design!!!! you better have some pretty beefy content, or it's just an exercise in design and then who cares? Gonzales has some pretty beefy content, so it works or at least comes near to working.

In general, though, photobook people haven't got any content that demands, or is even aided, by any kind of intrusive design. Mostly, they haven't got any content that should be committed to paper at all, to be fair, but given that they're committed to printing something we have to consider design.

For the most part, the exercise of forcing the content into the form of a codex (or a scroll, or a web page, or whatever) is just going to improve things. If you absolutely have to use a gatefold, or varnish, or a cutout, you should probably go back to your content and reconsider it. You might still need whatever it is, but it's because you lost that round.

Fundamentally, the idea that design, that form, should intrude is a bad default choice. It's not always wrong, but it's one of those ideas that you should visit, and revisit, and be really double-plus sure about before proceeding, and even then you're probably still wrong.

It is not an accident that most "photobooks" do well to sell a few hundred copies, whereas lots of "books filled with photos" sell a great number more. Photobooks as we understand them tend to be form-forward and content-light, and the only people who like that shit are the aficionados who are a) broke and b) not very numerous.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Content vs. Form

Recently on twitter there was a brief conversation between some photobook people about photobooks, and the selling thereof. One person proposed that publishers should put up all the spreads on the sales web site. Another person agreed, and said that "photobook people" would buy just the same, or perhaps with more enthusiasm.

I found this very interesting.

In essence, the proposal is the give away the content of the book, in some sense, as a teaser or advertisement for the form of the book, for the physical object. The suggestion is that this would result in more sales, rather than fewer.

Well, maybe. There's a whole thing around this in the land of text. Certainly in this household the availability of electronic versions of books has cost some sales of some specific books. It may have, for all I know, led to an uptick in total sales, and has certainly increased total consumption of books. Arguably, a digital edition cannibalizes library usage more than sales, etcetera and so on. There's a lot of subtlety here, and the details are not at all obvious.

What's interesting to me here is not really whether or not you'd sell more or fewer books by giving the content away. What's interesting is what the attitude illustrated above tells us about photobooks and photobook people.

The blasé suggestion that one ought to, just naturally, put up all the spreads is at least consistent with the idea that the content doesn't really matter.

The photobook is, to these people and to the "photobook people" they're talking about, primarily an object to be coveted. As a bibliophile myself, I get that. I rather covet all my books. Nevertheless, it would never occur to me to put up all the content for free, of a book I was seriously trying to sell. I give away content a lot, but always for things I am simply giving away.

My interest in the book with photographs is specifically in the content, the ways you can shape the things you put in there to produce, well, results of some sort. I don't really care about the form, the object. Most of the objects I made are cheaply made boxes whose sole function is to contain content.

This is, of course, in contrast to much of the photobook industry, which is in the business of globbing ink as thickly as possible onto the page, in a sort of pitiable attempt to approach the Fine Print, which is itself a sort of pitiable attempt to emulate the Original Oil Painting, all of which is in my opinion a kind of bankrupt enterprise.

It is maybe not surprising that a Very Successful photobook sells 1000 copies, if the content isn't important. We see this sort of thing brought to a kind of apotheosis with things like Paul Graham's Mother which, for those who are not thrown into an instant rage by the reference, a small book consisting of 14 substantially identical portraits of Graham's mom. It is by all accounts a lovely object, an object to be coveted. But the content is essentially zilch. There's almost nothing there. "A boy loves his mom, news at 11."

Now, I don't really know if the people in the original conversation don't much care about content, or if they simply think their target market doesn't much care about content, and it doesn't matter. The point is, this attitude exists, and is to a large degree driving this little industry, and I don't think it's a good thing.

Content does so matter, damn it.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Sticky Ideas

I keep finding new examples of a thing. People have some idea, and they completely believe it. But it's an idea that 10 minutes of honest research and/or thinking would invert. Let's take "photographs are violent" as an example, but there are lots of others.

This is an idea which is, basically, stupid on the face of it. If you examine the idea head-on your first impression has to be something like "what now? That makes no sense." A photograph is, after all, just a piece of paper with smudges on it. Ok, so people who "believe" this have somewhat broader and more nuanced definitions of both "photograph" and "violence" but it still doesn't work.

If you go on a lengthy road-trip trying to find out what the basis for this belief is, you will find some not particularly robust theorizing about media as a complete system, and then a sort of abrupt step to invidual photos, and then the idea is simply repeated over and over and accepted as Obviously True.

What's interesting to me in this moment is not that this specific thing is happening, but that the same thing happens constantly. It follows that you and I live, ourselves, in a sea of similarly wrong ideas; ideas which if we examined them carefully we would discover that they are basically wrong. Maybe they're not well supported, maybe they are in fact exactly the opposite of true, whatever. Odds are, we have a lot of this shit that we believe because our father believed it (or believed the opposite) or because our friends do. There isn't enough time to examine all our beliefs, we're pretty much stuck just getting on with life because the dishes are not going to do themselves.

Furthermore, beliefs that are consistent with other things we believe, whatever the nature of those beliefs, are harder to shift. The "photography is violence" crew have a fairly complete world view of which this is one item. To my eye, the whole thing is junk, but there we have it. Libertarians are also a thing, and their world-view is equally complete and equally, to my eye, nonsensical.

This matters, at least to me, because I want to understand the breadth of possibility in what people bring to photographs. Obviously it matters in the larger world as well (the question of "what's up with all those <name a political stance> people anyways?" looms rather large in this era.) But for the purposes of this blog, we need to understand that people approaching a photograph differently from us are not lying, or disingenuous. Not necessarily. They may simply be hewing to a system of belief that appears to us nonsensical. At the same time, we are hewing to a system of belief that they view as nonsensical.

Naturally, I am sure that my ideas are all carefully checked out, and probably correct. Or at any rate I would be if I wasn't pretty aware that this is just another of those nonsensical world views.

Something you can usefully do, especially as a critic, is to take seriously the possibility that you're wrong and the other fellow is right. It might not actually change your stance, but any attempt to grasp the other fellow's position will help you make sense of where they're coming from, and in turn why they see the photo (or whatever) this way rather than that way. A certain breadth of open-mindedness is, I think, necessary if you wish to see how media, art, what-have-you, fits into culture.

To a large extent, this breadth is lacking from the critical discourse around photography. The complete and distinct world-view pointed out above is seen as objective truth, and there's no need to examine alternatives. These are not open-minded people.

So, while I happen to think that the "photographs are violence" notion is silly, I have struggled with it, and continue to do so. It does indeed reveal much about how other critics are seeing photographs. It reveals why and how their analyses diverge from my own.

Am I right? Well, obviously I think so, otherwise I'd have different beliefs, wouldn't I? But I can't know for sure. It's up to you to work out who's making more sense which, in the end, boils down uselessly to working out who's telling a story that lines up better with your collection of beliefs, your own deeply flawed world view.

It's enough to make a boy into a nihilist!

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Book Sale: Vigilante

This is a soft-launch of my book sale. I am hoping to sell 100 copies of this Vigilante zine/book thing that I made on blurb. It's a fun little local-art thingy, 15 bucks gets you a copy of the thing. US/Canada only because I am too dumb to work out international shipping, and it's my first time so I am keeping it simple.

It's a gofundme campaign, because Tim at Leicaphilia used that platform to sell his book and it seemed to work ok.

Vigilante: 30 day book sale

I basically want to know, at this point, if all the links and videos and crap work and are pointed at the right places. Feedback most assuredly welcome!

Also, please buy my book!

Many of you will likely be receiving directly emailed pleas, which you can ward off by buying early.

Monday, November 15, 2021


Over the last week or so I've been observing and remarking on some shoddy forensic analysis of photos. Never mind where or who. Several academics with alleged expertise in documentary photography and ethics weighed in. It was not a good situation. This is the photo in question:

It's shot by Ralph Pace, and was a contest winner at World Press Photo (I gather that it's done well more broadly). Obviously, it looks weird to the untrained eye. The mask really pops. This is why it's a contest winner: contest winners often look weird. The point is to stand out, after all. Anyways, one of the academics decided to Investigate Using His Skills.

First he applied Error Level Analysis (ELA) which, as it always does, detected the sharp edges. The astute observe will notice that this mainly means the mask in this picture. ELA is thoroughly discredited trash, even by design it only detects a narrow band of composites that no serious photographer would ever produce, and it is notoriously hard to interpret. It is, for all practical purposes, a false-positive farm. That said, our Serious Academic read the results completely wrong. The tutorial on ELA's inventor's web site specifically calls as not relevant out the features our hero notes as evidence.

Moving on, our boy zoomed in on the mask:

He notes that the KN95 marking is backwards, and speculates that this could be a flipped image. In passing, he notes that mayyyybe we're looking at the inside of the mask, but there's no way to know for sure.

There is, in fact, a remarkably obvious and clear way to tell that you're looking at the inside of the mask. Do you see it?

Regardless, it doesn't matter and this particular shitshow is not my point.

The point is that the first academic and then a second one, looked at this closeup of the mask, wondered if we were looking at the inside, and completely failed to notice the obvious tell. What the hell is going on here?

Maybe they were both having a bad day. Maybe they suffer from cognitive or visual deficits that prevent them from seeing things. It could be a lot of things. My guess though is that they both approached the picture assuming that it was a composite, and that the closeup mask was therefore a flipped photo. Despite handwaving toward the other possibility, they were not able to take it seriously. They never made even a silent, internal, feint at "ok, what else is there in the picture that suggests that it has not been flipped."

If true, this exhibits a remarkable degree of bias. The closeup simply hasn't got many features, the tell is one of a very small number of things that can actually be seen. It's not hiding. If you were to enumerate the Things Which Can Be Seen in this thing you'd get, I don't know, you might be able to stretch it out to a dozen elements and that only by counting both elements of some pairs. You have to really not try even slightly to prove that you're looking at the interior of the mask.

So what we have is a pair of academics (one is doing post-doctoral research in aspects of photojournalism, the other is in a PhD program on other aspects of photojournalism) who apparently cannot work out the ground truth of a remarkably simple photograph. I don't expect everyone on earth to be able to solve this puzzle, so if you can't, don't feel bad. But this is literally their wheelhouse, this is their area of expertise. I do not see how you can study photojournalism seriously and be unable to figure out what the hell you're looking at.

Tragically, I am convinced that this is in fact normal in the field. I am surprised only at how far personal bias can take you into the land of blindness.

The academic community has correctly observed that bringing a true and unambiguous objectivity to a photo is a pipe dream, it is not realistic to think one can do this. Your default posture is intensely personal, you bring your biases, beliefs, history, etc to the table. This influences which things you notice in a photo, and which you do not. This, in turn, influences what kinds of extrapolations you build upon the photo, to recreate the world that you're looking at. This is inevitable.

The proper response, one I have advocated at some length here and there, is to do your best. There isn't any choice, you have to try, because otherwise you can't do anything. You have to develop the skill of looking at a picture with a moderate degree of neutrality, and seeing what is actually there. There are techniques you can use, and practice always helps, naturally. Can you make it perfect? No. Can you do better than these guys? Unquestionably yes.

The response from the academy appears to have been to simply abandon all hope of objectivity. They make no serious attempt to bring anything but their own selves to the picture. All you can learn from their discussion of any photos is what a kind of prog-left weirdo/mediocrity might make of the picture. This could be fine, I have no problem with people explaining their personal reactions to things. It can be lovely and fun and enlightening.

We run into trouble when they present, as they all too often do, their own biased and personal reading out as some kind of truth. Either they claim their reaction as more or less universal, or if not universal at least the right one (who cares what fascists thing, amirite?) and sometimes as ground truth.

In the case we began with, we have a remarkable situation: a combination of ignorance, bias, and laziness (nobody involved actually went and located a KN95 mask to see what they look like, or photographed one to see how light falls on them. well, except for me. the farthest anyone else went was, literally, a google search.) leading to an accusation of fakery which is in the end founded on literally nothing. There is no evidence presented that stands up even slightly. The only thing we have is "well, the photo looks weird" which is does only if you don't know what white things photographed underwater with a flash look like.

The original accusation has been tempered with a lot of "well, I'm not sure so everyone should keep an open mind" which is insane, because there is, again, literally no reason to believe one of the two sides. While this thing could be a composite, literally no evidence of any kind has been presented that it is, and the World Press Photo people have attested that their forensics team has passed the photo as not-composite. At this point it borders on ludicrous to hew to the "faked" theory, at least if you're paying attention.

What we have is a biased, personal, reading being presented as not even as a universal, or some kind of cultural truth, but as literal ground truth.

This is where photo criticism has gone to die. In the hands of incompetents leaning on incoherent, unworkable, theories to produce nonsense results. Not quite the results we're looking for.

The tell, by the way, is the straps of the mask. These are always adhered to the outer surface of the mask. Placing them on the inside would break the seal, such as it is.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

"A World in Ruins"

Here is a kickstarter campaign for a photobook: A World in Ruins from Blueboat Press in the UK, photographs by James Lacey.

Bluecoat did Jim Mortram's Small Town Inertia which is a book that appears to be superb, and which I keep meaning to buy without ever actually getting around to it. The point here being that Bluecoat seems to be a stand-up outfit, so one wonders what the fuck they're doing publishing some shitty UrbEx project. One can only imagine that it's to pay the bills. I am vaguely surprised that this thing hasn't hit a billion dollars by now, but I guess in the general fade of photography interest, you maybe can't sell even this crowd-pleasing stuff as well any more.

Let's think a little about this category of stuff. I hate it, without reservation, and I (abstractly, not personally) hate the people who do it.

What do these pictures do? Well, they transport us to the interiors of abandoned buildings. We are there, in what remains of some other human endeavor. An abandoned home, or business. We see the detritus of a life, of a job, of an enterprise. We can see the bits and pieces, and we can imagine the lives that were here before. We feel the presence of ghosts, in a sense, as we spy on their stuff, on their life.

It is a kind of unsavory voyeurism. We're not supposed to be here, it's not our home. These are private things, that were intended to be shut away from prying eyes. The photograph makes this expedition of snooping safe, nobody is going to burst in on us demanding answers. Nobody need even know we're doing it.

These projects represent the worst of our gossipy, nosey, humanity. We can sneak about, but we can't be caught. It's fucking catnip. Which is why these goddamned things have traditionally always sold really well, and why people love these pictures, and thus why people keep taking them. The photographer could be caught. The photographer is being a nosey little sneak, but is at least taking the corresponding risk. He takes the risk, because he craves the social media likes.

None of this is very healthy.

If you think about it for more than a few moments, you realize that neither is it even real. There is a secondary layer of shittiness here!

All these guys have a story about how they never force entry, and they never disturb anything they find inside. This supports the viewer experience: "this is all real, just as it was left lo those many years ago" and also makes us feel better about being so nosey. Our proxy didn't actually break in, you know, "it was already open, so it's ok, right?"

Well, when James Lacey says that he only uses "natural entry" he does not mean "the ivy gently and naturally unlocked the front door" it means "someone else kicked the front door in." He also says " I leave the buildings as I find them and treat them with the respect they deserve after documenting them." UrbEx guys all say this, and we can be pretty sure some of them are lying. These doors are not kicking themselves in.

Let us cast our mind back to, I dunno, 1970. A house is locked up for the winter, dust covers over the furniture, dishes all put away, shutters closed, doors locked. Someone dies, the house is embroiled in some dispute of inheritance, and is somehow lost track of. It passes to the cousin in Australia, who later dies and leaves it to his children who don't care. The house is abandoned.

By 1990 it's visibly decrepit and overgrown. Some homeless guy, a local teenager, an Urban Explorer, someone kicks the door in to snoop around in there. Indeed, people come and go. People take up residence briefly, and move on.

The dust covers come off, shutters and curtains are opened. Curiosity or just a desire to sit down in the light. Someone digs out some blankets because they're cold. An UrbEx photographer sets the table because that looks cooler. As we've seen by examining photographs from the area around Chernobyl, photographers move things around, and bring in objects, relentlessly. The idea that some abandoned home is immune to this is ludicrous.

So, what we are actually looking at is the detritus not of a life lived, but of endless streams of visitors. Some want shelter, others want photographs, some are just nosey.

All these UrbEx guys are attracted to the mystery, so they say. Why is the chair placed there? Well, bub, it's almost certainly there because some other UrbEx idiot thought it would be more photogenic placed there. Which is probably why it's so photogenic there.

These things are dressed sets, dressed mostly with the detritus of the house, dragged out of various closets and boxes and the attic. I dare say there's a certain amount of material that's been dragged in as well. There is reason these damned pictures are so perfect, it's because many photographers have re-arranged them over and over, over literally years, until they look like that.

Sure, it's perfectly possible that James Lacey has never kicked in a door, but ironically the only way to reliably take the unsullied photos he claims to be taking is to kick the door in. Once the door has been kicked in, people are coming and going, people are moving things around, people are sullying the scene.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Language and Art

It is often said that photography, or art, has a language. This is definitely not true, although there's a related thing that is. Language, it turns out, is a pretty well defined concept. The "language" of art has no structure, no grammar, no syntax. The "words" of Art's "language" are not particularly abstract in, for example, the sense that "dog" is an arbitrary noise which refers to the same category of objects as the equally arbitrary noise "chien" does. What Art has is, maybe, a vocabulary. Essentially, the artist throws symbols down, symbols which are anything but arbitrary, in more or less a jumble and leaves it to the Art Consumer to sort it all out.

In Art and Revolution Berger writes:

A subject is revealed in art only when it has forced the artist to adapt his procedure, to admit in terms of his formal means its special case.

As a side note, it is worth remarking that the antecedent of "its" at the end there is not grammatically clear. You have to work from context that the antecedent is "subject" not "procedure/formal means." The cynic in me wonders if modern Art Writers have trouble working this sort of thing out, and have therefore decided unconsciously that it simply doesn't matter. This might explain why so many of their pronouns appear to be untroubled by any antecedent at all.

Back to business.

Having dismissed the analogy to language, I am now going to lean in to it. Isn't this fun? Language evolves, according to pretty well described mechanics. When snowboards were invented, a whole world of vocabulary was invented to describe the boards themselves, the things people did with them, the culture surrounding them, and so on. A lot of borrowing, some neologisms, etcetera and so forth. The point is that here was a subject which literally had not existed, and language was hurriedly developed to "admit its special case." Art, likewise, is trying to say new things, about new pieces of the human experience or whatever. Berger was pretty big on the idea that Art continues to evolve and grow because the (human) world continues to evolve, so there are always new things to be said.

I am going to make up an entirely arbitrary distinction, and assign arbitrary terms: I will refer to art-like things which are made relying on existing tropes and vocabulary as "media" and I will refer to art-like things which develop new tropes, new vocabulary, as "art." Obviously there is a spectrum here, as well as a relativism. If you have never heard of cubism, you might re-invent it to solve some contemporary artistic problem you have. This would make it, um, "art" for you, but "media" for everyone else? Also, of course, there is no distinct line between a "new trope" and an "old trope." Let us briskly sweep all this messiness under the carpet, on the assumption that you are clever enough to follow along, make allowances, and perhaps find something useful in what follows. In spite of it all.

The hard problem in art is to shape material to meaning. A working artist, a working maker-of-media, generally has a toolbox of method. The temptation is always to simply reach into the box and draw out the tool that seems least unsuited to the task at hand, and then to have at it. The result of this rarely satisfies, although photographers often seem to draw satisfaction from perfecting the use of the tool itself rather than the shaping of material which the tool enables. Language, and by analogy, media can say infinitely many things, but it is nevertheless constrained by itself. You cannot write effectively about snowboards using the vocabulary of skiing. You can write, but the result is clumsy and unpleasant to read.

In the same way, you cannot solve a new artistic problem in a satisfying way using purely the methods devised to solve other problems. When confronted with a new world, as we in some sense are every day, a new world about which new things can be said, we ought to constantly revise our tools. We ought to constantly devise new vocabulary. As with the vocabulary of snowboards, our new vocabulary will likely contain borrowings and neologisms. Because we know, instinctively it seems, how language evolves, we can understand these neologisms when snowboards appear on the scene. In the same way, we should understand the "neologisms" that appear in new art not because they are well-known elements of vocabulary, but because we understand how new vocabulary is formed. We can at any rate puzzle out what this new thing is supposed to be, if we apply ourselves. In theory.

All of this is, of course, very squishy. What is a "new" trope, and what is merely a "recycled" trope, anyway? There is no clear line between the two. And yet, the lack of a clear delineation does not prove the absence of categories entirely. We can recognize the possibility of a new trope, we can recognize an old trope, and at the same time acknowledge that there's probably a pretty large and subjective grey area. The point is that we strive for the one side of the spectrum. We strive to shape our formal means to the special case of our current subject.

This is not to suggest that you must first define your intended meaning, then proceed to develop a new method or set of methods, and finally, and only then, begin painting. One could, I suppose, but it doesn't sound like a lot of fun. In reality we simply begin. Meaning may never truly become clear, although surely something or other will emerge before we are done (otherwise, perhaps we ought to stop and do something else, no?) As we work, though, the material of our work, that mess of subject, meaning, medium, may propose a method. We should be open to that proposition.

There are, essentially, two risks here, one on each side of the path as it were.

On the one hand, it is tempting to stick with the methods we know and trust, methods which have served us well in the past. We've said things before with these tools, surely they will work for us again. Indeed, they will, but they may prove incapable of saying the things we need to say. This is to reject the proposals offered by the material of the work, which we ought not to do. Photographers do this a lot, grinding out endless repetitions of successful pictures from their past, and claiming it as "my style."

Let us take a moment to return to my earlier definition of "media." If it is your intention to produce media, perhaps you are reporting news, then by all means you should use the tools in the box, the vocabulary you trust. Media is not about wrestling with new ways to express new things, it is entirely about using tried-and-true vocabulary to express as best we can whatever it is we're trying to say. Nobody thinks that this riot would be best expressed with wet plate, whereas that riot was really best captured in digital color. From the point of view of media, a riot is a riot, and they're all the same, and should be photographed the same. Chuck in a skyline shot so people know what city it was in.

Back to the other risk, on the other side of the path:

On the other hand, it is tempting to try out variations and methods new to us, for their own sake. We hope that something or other will emerge, despite the fact that the material of the work is making no such proposition. Our efforts on this side are effectively random, not being driven by the work itself, by the meaning that is struggling to make itself known. Photographers, different ones, also do this, a sort of random hopeless dicking around with process, buying lenses or learning to do wet plates, or taking up Brenizer's method for no discernible reason.

It is not so easy to distinguish between "meaning trying to make itself known" and a mere rationalization of a photographer's desire to dick around with something new. There may not even be a clear dividing line. It is at this point that some sort of notion of meaning is probably useful. If you don't have any notion of where you're going, any method is equally pointless. When the urge to try wet plate photography steals up on you, it might not be amiss to ask yourself what problem, exactly, this is supposed to solve.

I recently went to a little bit of trouble to make a pinhole for my camera, thinking it might solve an artistic problem. The jury is still out on this, but at the moment it's looking like "no."

There is no doubt that the pinhole does something, I can see and articulate what that something is ("dreamlike" or whatever,) but what I cannot quite persuade myself of is that it's solving the underlying problem I have set myself. I'll keep the pinhole, but it probably isn't the method here.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

The Fallacy of Proximity

In the world of cryptocurrency, which has metastasized to encompass NFTs and DAOs, and which will undoubtedly produce more acronyms before the end, the underlying technology is blockchain. It doesn't matter what any of these things are, the key point here is that blockchain is a technology which literally cannot solve any problems. There is no problem yet identified for which it is anything more than an extremely bad semi-solution.

What happens is that someone builds some kind of system, for "money" or "art" or whatever, which they claim has some interesting, fun, useful properties. In general, it in fact has none of the claimed properties, but that's a separate conversation, so let us stipulate that the system actually has the relevant properties and is in fact interesting, fun, useful. The system has, somewhere in it, blockchain. The people building the system and, importantly, selling it, will loudly claim that it's the blockchain what done it!

It's the blockchain that enables all the desirable properties!

This is also false, and is the subject of today's post. Blockchain, whatever it is, doesn't solve any problems. It is not capable of solving problems. The system these people have built relies on blockchain not even in the slightest, they could have built functionally the same system on practically anything else, and it would have been better. But, for reasons that have to do with the massive grift that is crypto, they built it on blockchain.

Here we see the first instance of the fallacy of proximity. We can see blockchain right there in the system. We are told that it is this that makes the system interesting, fun, and useful. The fact that blockchain is nearby, however, does not imply a causal relationship.

The important distinction is this: in order for A to cause B, A needs to be positioned somewhere at a point of leverage. This is true. However, if C is positioned at a point of leverage, we cannot deduce that C caused B. C could just be sitting there, doing nothing. The fact that it is positioned near B does not mean that it caused B.

In order for the truck (A) to run over the cow (B), the truck has to be on the same road as the cow. The Honda Civic (C) that was also on the same road, however, did not run over the cow (B.)

This is apparently hard for people to grasp, and is absolutely a point of entry for grifters, other people with agendas, and indeed anyone who's looking for causes.

This is, I think, the root of some obsessions with process in Art. People are trying to cause some Good Art to happen, so they try out shit that feels nearby. If they manage to produce something not bad, they are likely to ascribe the cause to whatever process they were doing.

"See, I was eating vegan and meditating that week, so now that's My Process because that's how you make Good Art, sign up for my workshop on how eating vegan and meditating can help YOU make Good Art too!"

Now, the production of Good Art can be a bit mysterious, so I am loathe to condemn any particular artist and their process, but as a generality I consider it likely that a lot of process is simply wasted effort. We just don't know which parts.

This is also a favorite argument in the land of academic photography. Ariella Azoulay's writing (but they all do it) tends to boil down to "bad thing happened, and there was a photographer nearby, therefore photography is very violent and bad" which is, again, to suppose that the Honda Civic ran the cow over. Azoulay would likely allow as to how the truck also ran the cow over, but she's pretty sure that the Civic did as well.

Indeed, really, every car is complicit the the murder of the cow, when you think about it.

These arguments go over really really well, it turns out. People, whether they're buying NFTs or reading academic papers about how poisonous photographs are, find the Proximity argument very convincing.

As a reformed mathematician, I don't, but I'm pretty sure I'm the odd one out here.