Thursday, December 23, 2021

Getting it Right

Sally Mann won the Prix Pictet for some photos she made in a swamp, the "Blackwater" series of tintypes. Yay! Tom Seymour, of The Art Newspaper, wrote it up in what he un-ironically referred to as a "long-form read" (1900 words) in a piece you may read here: "Ghostly photographs of the Virginia swamp ..."

This piece, despite (as usual) getting passed around by everyone as a great and important piece, is dogshit.

On the one hand, sure, it's got some good material in it, and it reports the facts of a notable event in the world of photography. Sure, Tom Seymour is (it is painfully clear) a generalist with no specialized domain knowlege, banging out some basic reportage on a deadline. Nevertheless, it contains multiple factual errors, and traces a well-worn and shoddy path through the story.

We begin with a discussion of the Blackwater photos, which Seymour covers mainly by quoting Mann, which saved him a couple hundred words of writing. Still, ok. Not a bad choice, Mann is lucid and on-point, and some degree of quotation is absolutely appropriate. This section is OK.

Seymour is obviously completely ignorant of wet-plate processes, making a complete hash to the tintype process: "She captured the charred landscapes using a large-format camera, a signature of her career, before conjuring the images in monochrome tintypes using wet collodion-coated glass plates" which is no particular sin, but just making up some bullshit to replace the knowledge you don't have is a bad habit. The first paragraph of the wikipedia page on "tintype" clears this up, but that clearly requires more effort than Seymour was willing to spend.

He then proceeds through a precis of Mann's early career, landing, of course, on "Immediate Family" and then pretty much stopping there, almost completely ignoring the decades of work that comes between the naked kids and the Prix Pictet. He takes a little detour through "At Twelve" focusing, of course, on the most prurient single anecdote from that work.

Along the way he describes Mann's early film work as wet-plate collodion, which it is not, and again a few seconds of research would have shown him this. But he's certainly not afraid of some purple prose. Seymour again:

In a sensual and dramatic monochrome, again exquisitely printed in large format via the wet-plate collodion process, the series depicts Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia, aged six, four and one when she started the project, and 12, ten and seven at the time of the series’ publication.

At this point we know that he is ignorant of Mann's career arc, obviously, but is he ignorant of what wet-plate looks like, of what Mann's wet-plate looks like, or what the photos in "Immediate Family" look like? Nobody with the smallest clue would think these photos are wet-plate, and most assuredly not Mann's distinctive take on wet-plate, and indeed they are not. These are mostly taken a decade or more before she learned the collodion process as, again, even a quick skim of even wikipedia would reveal.

He also claims that "At Twelve" is wet-plate, which raises exactly the same questions for exactly the same reasons.

Finally, somewhere in there, he tells us that Mann took up photography (she says) to spend time in the darkroom with her boyfriend (true) who was Larry Mann (no he wasn't.)

The pattern is clear, Seymour doesn't know anything about any of the details of anything here, which (again) is no sin. He's a generalist. He gets himself into trouble by (very) hastily skimming a couple of sources, and then extrapolating a bunch of wrong shit that he definitely didn't read anywhere. If he'd even kept to cribbing, he'd have been fine. Evidently he was unsatisfied with that, and felt the need to splice facts together to create falsehoods, and printed those instead.

Eventually some dumbshit MFA student is going to cite this garbage in their thesis, and then it's going to stick, and eventually wend its way back into wikipedia, and then the official story will simply be irretreivably false.

Of course, all journalism is like this. Generalists make up details to fill in the gaps, and move on.

Yes, I have pointed out these errors to Seymour and to the editorial staff of The Art Newspaper.

They simply don't care.

1 comment:

  1. Yep, someday the lies will be "truth" just like Robart Capa and the D-Day darkroom disaster at LIFE magazine that never really happened.