Featured Post

Pinned Post, A Policy Note:

I have made a decision to keep this blog virus free from this point forward, at least until the smoke clears. This is not a judgement about ...

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Good and Appealing

In my youth I attended a moderate number of rock concerts, some quite large, so I have some notion of the kinds of energy present at these things. At least, the kinds of energy present at them circa 1983, which I admit is quite some little while ago.

It happens that I've watched some Taylor Swift concert footage over the years, and it seems to me that the energy is a little different. Maybe a lot different.

The notable feature is that many clips seem to contains 10s of 1000s of screaming fans who know every single word of every single song singing along as if their very lives depended on it. I mean, I knew a lot of the words, but my life did not depend on singing them.

What do I think is going on? Well, something that is true about Ms. Swift is that she is a savant of the verse/chorus/bridge song structure. She can grind out well-crafted pop songs basically all day, they just fall out of her food hole. She's a competent singer, guitarist, pianist, but nothing remarkable. Her strength is songwriting. While she lacks Hack Williams's crystalline lucidity, she can really hammer together some words. She does interesting and clever things with the techniques of poetry, but in the end none of this is really her special trick.

Her special trick is this: every song is about you.

That's it. All the songs are about you, or you wish they were about you. Ok, maybe not you as such, but her fans all feel it, and it reaches out pretty broadly. You might be too cool, or too old, or too male, or whatever, but in the privacy of your own home you might remember what it was like to be young, to be like that.

There is no great technical virtuosity here. These songs are well-made, well-produced, pop songs, nothing more. Any number of pop groups and pop songwriters have slammed these things out by the yard. What they have not done is made songs that are about you by the yard. Swift has some sort of weird empathetic sense, she's explicit about just imagining how it might feel to be in some circumstance, and then she writes a song about it, and approximately 1.3 million people react with yes! yes! That song is about ME!

How does this apply to photography? After all, I write about photography, so surely I'm not just writing hagiography about some leggy blonde half my age?

The thing about photographs is they're already kind of about you. If you pay any attention at all to the frame, you're already "there" in a sense.

A photograph that people like isn't a technical tour de force it's a photograph that takes you to a place that you find interesting, or pleasant, or otherwise rewarding. A photograph of, say, a grey-ish jumble of sticks in a forest might not really appeal. You're "there" but so what? It's boring and probably cold. It's about you, but it's a boring song about picking your nose.

A photograph of a red ceiling, though, might catch your interest. You might imagine a pleasant, or thrilling, story for yourself. It's about you, in New Orleans, on that one night, when ...

A photo of a mom is about you, it's about your mom, or the mom you wish you had, or the mom you had in a different life, a mom deep with emotion, love, and strength. Your real mom was probably great too, but this is also a pretty good mom, a mom you'd be proud to have been the child of. It's about you, a you with a rich and interesting life. Of poverty, sure, but as long as you're not actually living it, poverty is interesting. This is a pop song, not real life, remember?

It's probably not fair to say that every "popular" or "well-known" photo is essentially a pop song about you, but there's something here, I am pretty sure.

Humanist photography, certainly, tends to bring us into a kind of virtualized contact with people we wish we'd met, people we'd like to meet, people who inspire us to imagine stories about ourselves. Just like Taylor Swift and that shitty boyfriend who never let her drive his great big stupid old pickup truck, and what we'd have done about that.

So there you have it, the photograph as pop song.


  1. Political photo journalism as a pop song, the idea made me smile, particularly thinking about some pictures of Margaret Tatcher.
    More seriously though, what you say about humanist photography is certainly also what populist leaders are looking for in photos of themselves.

  2. Can't say I give a rats ass about the 'music,' but tay's thriving infosec practice makes me so hard!

    See also https://www.theguardian.com/music/2021/dec/16/go-easy-on-me-why-pop-has-got-so-predictable