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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Off Topic: On Politics

I don't think I'm going to be able to work in a connection to photography here, this is just a mass of material I've been thinking about for a long time, all brought to a head by a recent Supreme Court decision here in the USA, and the reaction to it. But this essay isn't really about that either, it's about politics considered more broadly. I'm going to write in a tone that suggests everything I say is factual, but you should treat it all cum grano salis and keep in mind that, really, it's all just opinions and speculations.

The USA has two political parties, essentially. My observations and experiences with them, as well as a fair bit of reading, over the years have brought me around to a pretty specific conclusion about political parties in general. They are complex bureaucratic apparatuses which are almost entirely concerned with their own operation.

What I mean is that Democrats spend essentially 100% of their time on Being Party Members, and almost nothing on anything else. I'm sure they make sandwiches and play with their children and so on, but their professional lives are concerned exclusively with serving and operating the machine of the Democratic Party. Ditto, I think, Republicans and Conservatives, Liberals, Labour, and so on. In hindsight, I think this is inevitable. If the effort of "getting on" in the party is ever less than 100% of what a normal human can do, the party will evolve new procedures, subcommittees, forms, and caucuses, to consume the excess energy.

The result of this is that essentially all the "statecraft" (by which I mean, roughly, the cunning shenanigans part of "getting on" in any sort of bureaucratic apparatus) is consumed internally. The main difference between Democrats and Republicans is that the latter seem to save a little for actual governing, which is why they come out ahead disproportionately often in matters of actually operating a nation, despite their slight disadvantage at the polls.

It isn't that the Democrats are lazy, or polite, or stupid. It's that they're busy. They'd love to get up to some procedural shenanigans to accrue power in the government apparatus, but they're too busy running procedural shenanigans to accrue power in the Democratic Party to really get around to it.

Set this theory of bureaucratic apparatus aside for now. I can recommend Systemantics if you're interested in where these things come from, but to my eye this is kind of what Flusser was talking about as well, and certainly Orwell, Huxley, and Conrad spend a lot of effort on this sort of thinking.

The other branch of my thinking is this: we don't, functionally, have much in the way of free will. Even if we stipulate that the universe is not a great clockwork, with all outcomes predetermined, even if we stipulate that which we feel: that we have the capacity for free will, we don't functionally have much free will.

Almost everything that we say, think, believe, or do, is predetermined by our social situation, out context, our lives up to this moment. We believe, mainly, pretty much whatever our friends believe. This is in part because we become friends with like-minded people, and in part because we steal our ideas from our friends. It's a symbiotic, feedback, kinda deal. But that doesn't make it less true.

The AIs that write text are not so very different from us. They're just predicting the next most-likely word based on whatever the situation is. That's pretty much what we do, most of the time. Original thinking, original ideas, original acts, are insanely rare and very difficult. In the light of the recent Supreme Court decision, the social media out-roar, the street protests, the whole routine, is 100% predictable. Almost literally nobody is doing anything beyond acting out their predetermined role in response to an event which we've known in broad strokes was coming for years, and have known in detail was coming for weeks.

We are all of us, almost all the time, just dopey robots enacting our predetermined role as set by the social structures that surround and encapsulate us.

If we ruthlessly mash these two ideas together, what do we get?

Politicians and other party apparatchiks are people too. They are also more or less mindless drones acting out appointed roles, within a bureaucratic apparatus that is almost exclusively concerned with its own internal operations. Unlike, say, a corporation, a political party has essentially no constraints on bureaucratic excess, it is essentially a pure bureaucracy that does nothing except operate and expand itself.

I think it's useful to consider that what appears to be ideology, what appears to be a political posture vis-a-vis actual governing, is in fact at best a secondary set of stuff. A political party needs, as part of its bureaucratic operations, some sort of "policy ideas" but what those ideas are is largely irrelevant. So the party that is notionally more conservative tends to be tough on crime, anti-immigration, and so on these days, but those policy ideas are pretty much just drawn out of a hat and are subject to change. When they change, of course, nobody will remember that it was ever any other way, see Orwell. This is part and parcel of the bureaucratic machine.

It is a mistake to think that Priti Patel hates immigrants. Priti Patel is fully occupied with her role as a party apparatchik, Priti Patel doesn't think about immigrants at all. She has no opinion, and isn't interested. She enacts the bureaucracy's notional goals with respect to immigrants which are (checks notes) "we're against them" because she is a party apparatchik, and a very successful one at that.

While it's certainly possible that Priti Patel hates immigrants, is greedy and mean, and craves power, that is not what drives her policy moves. She is enacting her predetermined role within the bureaucracy, and at the moment that role is to oppose immigration.

A party's platform is essentially the same as the set of beliefs you and your friends share, and for pretty much the same reason. It's an incoherent set of ideas that have emerged from the collective mindset of the social group. It isn't based on anything, there is no rational argument for any of it, and it's remarkably fluid. A party needs a set of things to "be about" because the bureaucracy demands that there be sound bites and white papers come election time, but the party isn't actually about anything except itself.

This is why the Democrats are not going to abolish the filibuster and pack the Supreme Court and pass a law codifying abortion rights. It's because they don't care. Not because they're evil, or stupid, or notably incompetent, but because they're much too busy being Democrats. You can't get into the House of Representatives (the easiest win in US national politics) unless you've already committed yourself fully to being a party apparatchik. The bureaucracy of the party will, generally, prevent any mavericks from winning, so it's all apparatchiks all the way down. They will hew to the party line when speaking in public, but their actual job is being a Democrat (or a Republican) and in the USA that means their actual job is in fact fundraising for their next election.

These bureaucracies, in the USA, run on fundraising. They are, to first order and I think second and third as well, fundraising machines. As an elected official your job is to raise money to pay the consultants and staff which will labor ceaselessly to ensure your already-assured election (but if you don't pay them, the party won't endorse you, and the endorsed candidate will win the safe seat — for the British readers, the US system is essentially all pocket boroughs in a uniquely US style.) The goal of every bureaucracy is, when you peel away the bullshit, to expand itself, and in general that translates seamlessly to enlarging its own budget.

I am all but certain that the mechanics of fundraising are accompanied by myriad similar bureaucratic devices that must be successfully operated in order to maintain position in the system. I don't know what they are, but I do know how bureaucracies work.

For whatever reasons, it does appear that the conservative parties in Western Liberal Democracies seem to be saving up a little bit of their juice to actually effect change in the nations the aspire to rule. Perhaps it's as simple as being in a Western Liberal Democracy. Perhaps being perceived as the underdog constrains their bureaucratic excess slightly, in the same way the profit motive constrains a corporation. They feel it necessary, somehow, to save some energy to actually push forward on whatever random collection of items they're currently using as their "policy objectives." I don't really understand it.

The impotence of what appears to be the ideologically dominant parties, though, is obvious. They're entirely focused on their internal affairs, and simply can't be bothered to govern. That's what we have the government bureaucracy for, after all. (see: "Yes, Minister")

Be all this as it may, or may not, be, media certainly shows up in here somewhere. One of the operations of the party bureaucracies is the production of media, ostensibly to inform and/or shape the unwashed. For the most part, in the USA, the aim is less to inform and more to fundraise.

Photography probably shows up in here somewhere, but I told you from the outset that I was extremely unlikely to draw that line, and I'm not going to even attempt it here.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Art and AI

Everyone's excited about DALL-E and its variants, and now we have some boob at google claiming some chatbot is sentient, possibly because he likes to see his name in the press.

I was asked what I thought about art and AI in this context.

Start from here: our ignorance of what sentience or consciousness actually is, is complete. We have literally no idea, not the smallest fragment of an idea, not a sketch of an idea, of how these things work. Everything I've seen, and I do pay attention to the area, is either a) deeply stupid b) deeply trivial or c) observations made from the point of view of a possessor of a consciousness. The third one can be mildly interesting (starting from cogito ergo sum and proceeding, well, essentially to moderate elaborations of cogito ergo sum.)

Given that we don't actually know anything about consciousness, it's theoretically possible that a can of paint is conscious. How would we know it's not? Well, we can make some guesses.

The important elaboration on cogito ergo sum is the idea that a consciousness introspects. We contain within our mind a model of our own mind, which itself contains, etc, with (one assumes) simplifications are every level of re-modeling. My mind is complex, and contains a simplified model of itself, which in turn contains an even more simplified model, and so on until after 2 or 3 steps we have a blob labelled "mind" and that's about it. This implies certain things we can guess about what a sentient AI might look like.

In particular, it has to be able to "think about" AIs, specifically, itself.

DALL-E doesn't "think" about AIs, it "thinks" about visual 2D representations of things. GPT-3 doesn't "think" about neural networks which, like itself, model language. Insofar as GPT-3 cogitates about anything it cogitates about language. I cannot see anywhere in a can of paint where it might reasonably contain a model, simplified or not, of a can of paint. I conclude, therefore, that none of these things are likely to be sentient in any sensible definition of the word.

What AI research has taught us over the years is that you can get really really far without a shred of introspection.

The way you and I understand language is pretty specific. We map the symbols (whether sounds or letters or whatever) into some sort of conceptual thingies, which apply to a model of the world we contain in our minds. That world, importantly, contains a model of ourself, as well as models of other people who resemble us both physically and mentally. We make sense of language like "Susan is happy" by imagining a Susan and imagining her mental state and we imagine reacting to that mental state, and so on.

See also photography.

Given this complexity and nuance, you'd think that maybe you cannot meaningfully understand language without sentience, and therefore you cannot translate English to German without sentience.

This turns out to be, to a degree, false. You can indeed produce a fair translation (not a good one, but ok) without anything that remotely looks like sentience. Indeed, modern methods make no attempt to map the input language to some sort of internal world-model, although in times past that was very much the approach. Modern approaches just mimic known-correct translations as word-masses mapped to other word-masses, with fanatical depth.

DALL-E demonstrates that you can actually get a really long way toward making Art without a shred of sentience, without that introspective modeling part.

So are GPT-3 and DALL-E and all the result just second-rate simulations of some things humans do in a completely different way? Well, that's debatable. It's possible that most of our life is carried out with similar kinds of dunderheaded "computation" that's just fancy pattern matching paired with insect-like responses. The AIs might be completely different, but maybe they're actually working pretty much like the internal autopilots that operate so much of our day-to-day living.

What they're not doing is introspecting. They do not have a "self" to bring to the table.

So the burning question for Art is, does this even matter?

Of course we'd like to pretend that it is our very soul that infuses our work. Our own self, our essence, shines through, our creativity is rooted in that introspection. No Self, No Art!!

I dunno, I kind of think that's right. What's definitely true is that we're on the cusp of finding out.

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Photos of The Dead

In the wake of Uvalde, we're seeing journalist after journalist grinding out some think piece about whether or not We The Public should see photos of shot-up dead kids. They all cover the same ground "ethically so complex" and they all make the same remarks "sometimes a photo or photos seems to produce some kind of action, and yet, other times not so much. What a mystery!"

Notably, at least to me, none of them seem to cite Sontag's Regarding the Pain Of Others which you'd think would be required reading here, even though it doesn't actually make any more sense of the issue than the current think pieces.

It is clear that this is something journalists have latched on to this week as an easy way to produce some clickable content. Even the content mills have gotten into the game, and boy, does it produce engagement. It's all gun-control engagement, indistinguishable from BBS fights from 1985, but it probably sells ads the same. Anyway, let's dig into it a bit.

In broad strokes much of the underlying discussion is "does repeated exposure to photos induce numbness, or action?" and the answer is not actually "what a mystery!" but "yes to both, and it depends on the circumstances."

All photos produce an attenuated sense of presence. Pornography produces an attenuated sense that you're in the presence of hot people fucking, photos of a shot-up child's body produce an attenuated sense of being there, of looking at the body. That's how photos work, that's what photos do (I claim.) Consequently, we can ask not what exposure to photos do, but rather what exposure to the real thing does.

We pretty much know what the experience of being around a lot of shot-up corpses is like. We have lots of soldiers and ex-soldiers around. The answer is that it's shocking at first, and becomes while not normal, at any rate in some sense not surprising. It never becomes fun, or positive. I do not think normal soldiers ever entirely suppress their reaction. The body adapts, though, the shock wears off, and it becomes merely exhausting, it becomes long-term trauma of some kind.

It's not fair to describe it as normalized, it's not fair to say one becomes uncaring. It remains abnormal, it remains something to care about.

The emotional reaction remains, I think. The reaction becomes less violent, more internal, more quiet. That might be "numb" I suppose, but "numb" seems too-simple a word for the effect.

In the same way, pornography ceases to be surprising, ceases to be shocking. As a rule, though, it does not stop being arousing. The surprise, the "holy shit am I actually seeing this?" vanishes, and it becomes (again) not exactly normal, but also not surprising. We don't expect pornography to be present during majority of our lives, while we're eating lunch, brushing our teeth, etc. It's not "normal" in that sense. And yet, in those times when pornography might reasonably be expected to heave into view, we're in no way taken aback. We are, if things are working right, aroused.

Photos of violence, and of the results of violence, are shocking when we see them at first. We're appalled, we rend our clothing, we weep.

If we were exposed to them routinely, we would likely cease to react as vigorously. We would feel less intensely. Presumably, though, we would continue to feel sorrow, regret, worry, fear, anguish.

Our sense of the world would likely shift, we would likely internalize more viscerally a sense of the world as a profoundly violent place. We know this already, but here in the West, we often know it more or less intellectually rather than viscerally. We would collectively, I suspect, develop a more somatic sense of the violence of the world.

A regular diet of shooting victim photos would leave us routinely, viscerally, sorrowful and anguished about this victim or that, in a world we understand more deeply, viscerally, as a violent place. We would be, I suppose, sadder and more afraid.

Will our newly visceral sympathy and fear change our attitudes? Will the pro-gun people see this as proof that everyone needs a gun for defense in this dangerous world? Will anti-gun people see this as proof that we need to ban guns, especially the black ones? Fear makes people hunker down and hold harder to their ideas, while empathy has a chance to shift them to a new idea.

If we want changed attitudes, I submit that we should aim for sympathy, for empathy, for love; we should shy away from fear. I don't know how to do that. I don't know what photos would produce more empathy and less fear.

Would any of this translate into action? And if so, which actions?

As noted in my previous remarks, nothing happens until the circumstances of the real world open a path to action. Until there is something concrete that we can collectively do which will actually affect the real world, all the gruesome photos in the world won't change a thing except our emotional state. We cannot really predict what the actions that actually occur will be, or what results those actions will produce.

Will we vote for more cops, leading to a hiring frenzy, resulting in hiring of terrible barrel-bottom losers as cops, producing more violence?

Will we protest for and then pass gun-control legislation? If so, will that legislation have any effect?

I have argued in the past that the American gun-violence problem is rooted in American tradition. This doesn't mean that banning AR-15s or whatever wouldn't have an effect, I simply have no idea. I do think I know where the root cause is, and it's inside us. To truly repair the gun violence problem, I believe we have to change the psyche of the nation, to shift it away from the idea that guns are a great solution to a broad class of problems.

I don't know how to do that. I am not convinced that publishing photos dead kids is going to do it, though, and I am having trouble imagining a path where is even might.

I see how a steady diet of such photographs would shape the national psyche, but I can only trace the path as far as "viscerally: more anguish and sorrow, together with more fear" which does not strike me as pointing to "guns are a bad tool for most problems."

I don't have the answers, I'm just trying to get a little further down the road of understanding, perhaps a few steps closer to the country of answers. Wiser heads than mine, perhaps...

Monday, June 6, 2022

History and Photography

I've seen the second article this week from a Serious Writer Person which asserts that photographs have little power to change the course of history, which is rocking me back a little. Did I miss a memo, or are photos now simultaneously impotent and incredibly powerful? Who knows. Allow me to indulge myself a little and think through a theory of change, of history in the shaping.

As a first approximation, it certainly seems as though everything which happens, happens as the inevitable result of the things that came before. To shape events today, you must alter them yesterday. The events of yesterday, though, were the inevitable result of the events that preceded them. This yields, by induction, a theory of history as impervious to change, as a sequence of inevitable events, one after the other, a clockwork none can alter.

This is, at least, an impractical theory. If true, who cares? Nothing matters. Let us, accordingly, think about some variations on the theme.

Each social entity, perhaps a single person, a group of revolutionaries, or society as a generalized whole, acts, lets us suppose, at any given moment within a fairly narrow scope of options determined by the context. Context includes the state of the real world, and the emotional stance of the social entity. We act largely by selecting the easiest (psychically easiest) action, or at least an easy one.

Note that this does not mean that we do not do hard things. Sometimes the psychically easiest course is very hard indeed. Imagine you've told all your friends you're definitely not going to chicken out the first time you go skydiving. To leap out the terrifying doorway into the air is by no means easy, but it might well be easier than facing your friends tomorrow having punked-out.

A revolutionary group might switch abruptly from sullen insolence to violent revolution, and that seems a long single step taken in a moment. In reality, though, perhaps it is a very small step, psychically. The revolutionaries have been psyching themselves up, they've been painting themselves into a corner as their oppressors harass them into the same corner, and then one morning, at 6:48am give or take a few seconds, violence erupts not because it is hard, or a large step, but because it is the easiest and shortest step to take, given the context.

This suggests that even a single photograph, contributing to the emotional state of some social unit, might tilt the context slightly, might open the path to a new course of action.

The course has to be pretty clear. This is well established by people who study these things, as well as being pretty obvious when I state it. The stage must be set, the emotional state of the social unit must be nearby, the conditions of the real world must be such as to enable action. The photograph arrives, it is seen, the emotional state takes on a new heightened and altered state, and the result is that the psychically easiest course is the action which results. The photograph in some sense caused the action.

Marketing, propaganda, is all about gently nudging the emotional state of the social unit. Often it's not even directed toward a specific action, but if the state of the world is right, the path will be cleared at some moment, and then the emotional state collapses like a quantum entanglement into action, into change. It might seem that suddenly a nation shifts and pelts, incomprehensibly, down a mad path. In reality forces have been slowly shaping the mood of the people, and other forces have been clearing the path.

Photographs and other media have a role here, they set the emotional stage, they show us the world and tell us its meaning. The inspire emotion, they make us angry, or inspire us, or delight us, they show us what ought to be, what is, and sometimes the show us what we might do.

Media, by shaping our ideas of the world, does not directly inspire change. Rather, it shapes us, it shapes our ideas of the psychic cost of this action versus that one. Media plays the role of all those friends to whom we bragged, all those friends who will relentlessly mock us if we fail to jump. Media does not pack our chute, it does not fly the plane, it does not open the door.

Our actions, and the actions of others, those directly shape the real world, they get us in the air standing in front of the open doorway, thinking about our friends. Then, we act, and that shapes the world anew.

It is, of course, not a tidy little loop of "media -> emotion -> (+ world) -> action -> new world" and back around to media again. It's a messy mesh of bullshit with arrows going all over the place all the time.

Still, I think it's a mechanic.

It answers the question of why the photograph of Aylan Kurdi dead on a beach didn't seem to have any effect. There was no easy course that could be activated by this photo, no matter how powerful the emotional impact. The photo of Emmett Till did activate a path forward, because there was a path forward. There were specific actions that could be taken, and which were taken, which were to a meaningful degree efficacious. There was a channel down which the emotional impact could flow, and flow it did.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Action vs. Emotion

It is pretty common to see assertions that go along these lines. Probably I've even made them:

Blah blah blah photograph (usually a dead or dying child) provoked a great outpouring of emotion, but at the end of the day nobody actually cares because nothing changed. There was a spasm of emotion, and then nothing.

It's the "nobody cares" part that got me thinking. Sometimes, in recent years, there's something about capitalism because everyone's an amateur socialist now. Even more recently the overly educated like to add "neoliberal" in there someplace.

My remarks here, it will surprise nobody, are triggered by, or perhaps a response to, some remarks by our old friend Dr. Colberg, who's expressing some positions unlikely to win him friends among his social set in his latest newsletter, here.

I would love to weigh 20 pounds less. I care about that, pretty strongly. To claim that I "don't care" would be nonsense. Yet, somehow, I manage to remain at around my current weight. You might argue that I don't care enough and depending on what we mean by that, it might in some sense be true.

Modern thinking, though, tries to separate things a bit more. It's not just a matter of caring more or less, changing habits is difficult, and the psychology of same is pretty complicated. There are strategies you can deploy, and factors in play, that make it meaningfully more than simply a matter of "caring enough."

In the same way, I suspect strongly that as a society, as a culture, "caring" is not meaningfully correlated with actual change. Change comes from somewhere else, somewhere a lot murkier, a lot more complex, a place where there are many factors some how which are difficult to see.

This is the essential problem that Gramsci was wrestling with when he formulated his ideas of cultural hegemony, although I don't think that he meaningfully moved much past identifying the thing.

All this is, of course, compounded by the fact that the course of action is often not clear. How shall we deal with this refugee crisis, or that? I know how to lose weight, the course of action there is straightforward, and I care, and even so I am largely helpless to actually put desire into action. How much more difficult for an entire society to solve a problem which lacks even a clear solution?

So, the photograph induces the emotion, the caring. We care about the refugees, about the victims of war, or famine. This is a real effect, easily measurable, often measured. It usually manifests concretely in the form of a spike in donations to specific charities, and often that spike is substantial, a clear signal. People care, and to a degree they act; just as I take a walk after the scale reveals to me a number I dislike, but I do not change my life.

Sometimes a photo, or an interval of photos, produces a larger spasm of action. People take to the streets in protest! This is not unlike joining a gym for the purpose of weight loss. It may or may not be an indicator of the larger structural changes which produce real social change (or real weight loss.)

In all cases, there is a gulf between the emotion, the spasmodic response; and the larger changes in structure necessary to produce actual social change. The larger structural changes may as well be described as an alteration of the hegemony of culture, in this case. The switch is from loudly proclaiming that such-and-such cannot stand, cannot continue, cannot happen again, to the construction of a society in which such-and-such actually does not stand, does not continue, does not happen again.

I have no answers here, I only know in broad strokes how a structural change in the hegemony of culture is brought about. It's called marketing, or propaganda, depending on whether you're for it or against it.

To claim, though, that photographs don't induce a genuine response, a genuine reaction, is untrue. To claim, on this flip side, that they alone constitute or maintain or shape a cultural hegemony is equally false. Europe does care about refugees, and that is largely independent of the fact that Europe is simultaneously failing to "solve" the refugee crisis it seems permanently mired in.

If I step on the scale in the morning, I don't like the number that I see. It is too large.

There is, I think, fairly rigorous research which suggests that people who weight themselves daily tend to be better able to manage their weight. The question is this: is is the act of daily weighing that leads to weight loss? Or is it that a person who already possesses the necessary psychological machinery to lose weight is also a person likely to weigh themselves daily? Probably some from column A, and some from column B.

In the same way, the genuine emotional outburst against, say, a war may be a useful or even necessary precondition to the conversion of war into peace. It is, obviously, not sufficient.

I don't think it wildly mischaracterizes Colberg's remarks as bemoaning the apparent fact that photographs cannot produce anything beyond a meaningless, false, emotional outburst. While in some sense he's got hold of something important here, I think it's wrong to characterize the emotional outburst as meaningless or false. Further, I think, I suspect, that these emotional outbursts and also appear as part of a shift in cultural structure.

In the same way that I might weigh myself and shake my head regularly, whether or not I have actually made the changes necessary to live life as a 175 pound man, it's probably true that if I have made those changes, I will weigh myself. It's probably also true that weighing myself will be a part of the changes that I might make, in a successful weight loss/lifestyle change program.

We cannot entirely lose hope for photography. The medium is in play, it has a role to play, but that role is subtle, and perhaps minor. But it's there.

Monday, May 30, 2022

Something to Look At

In the comments on the previous remarks, I made a note of this specific photograph as the pivotal object in the development of my attitude toward Alec Soth's Sleeping by the Mississippi so I thought I'd take a moment to examine it more closely.



We see two women, seated, legs extended toward the camera. They are wearing what appear to be short robes, and some sort of matching undergarments, all made of moderately sheer fabric, quite short. This leaves their legs exposed. The older woman has two small tattoos and a bandaid on one finger, the younger one is holding a cigarette, probably lit and has an aging manicure. Both are perhaps slightly overweight, but attractive by normal standards. Their hair looks wet and unkempt, consistent with recent bathing.

The younger woman wears moderately chunky high heels.

The setting in which they are seated looks vaguely seedy. The colors, the wall behind, the carpet, all look possible for a home, but taken together give an impression of a commercial or even industrial space with some beat up purple furniture shoved haphazardly into it.

I maintain that the impression is of prostitutes, specifically, "cheap whore" tropes. This photo was in fact taken in a brothel, we are informed, so "prostitutes" is certainly possible.

Why do I think this?

The visual emphasis on the women's legs explicitly sexualizes them. Their attire, the vaguely sexy "sleepwear" or possibly "loungewear" when combined with the chunky high heels hits a lot of sex worker tropes.

Tattoos and cigarettes speak to class. Here in 2022 tattoos are mainstream and hip, having made a long and slow journey from rebellious and counter-culture. Cigarettes have been on a long, slow, decline as a signifier of cool since perhaps the 1970s. Both, at this point and in the 1990s when this was shot, occupy an ambiguous position between "cool" and "dumb cracker."

In this picture, with the absence of any other signifiers to the contrary, I think they lean toward signifying low-class, socio-economically challenged, or whatever you want to call it.

It's tempting to describe the women's expressions as sullen, but I don't think that's it. They're just neutral. This pretty standard Soth portraiture, the expression of a bored but willing subject who's been watching this nervous fellow fiddle with his ludicrously huge camera for, honestly, kind of a long time. They're certainly not mugging for the camera, they're not trying particularly to look sexy. At the same time, neither are the particularly comfortable looking.

Given that all the signs point toward sex worker, the bandaid on the old woman's finger is telling. In fact, her nails don't appear to be done at all. These are neither "high class escorts" nor are they trying to fake it. They look like working class women who happen to be working at the sex business in a fairly low-rent establishment.

This is, it turns out, pretty much exactly the ground truth of the frame as far as we know it.

So why does it make me so mad?

The photo arguably presents something like the truth of these women's lives. They look like cheap whores because they are cheap whores. I like truth, right? Truth is good, isn't it?

What the picture lacks is sympathy. You could call it "punching down" if you like, although I despise that specific way of saying this particular thing. You could call it "exploitive" if you like, though that word is wildly overused.

Yes, these are cheap whores. There is surely, though, more to them than that. Surely there is more depth to these women than their demeaning and despised occupation? Why are we reducing them to four ample thighs and some chunky white shoes? While there isn't anything untrue, or even especially extra-demeaning to the picture, at the same time there is no redemption, no sympathy, no depth of character. The photograph does not particularly mock its subjects, but nor does it cast an iota of warmth in their direction, nor does it particularly acknowledge the humanity of its subjects.

The photo strikes me as needlessly, pointlessly, cruel, in the name of formal design and of some kind of objectivity.

One might tell the truth about these women, and at the same time exhibit a trace of empathy, of warmth. It's been done.

This icy tone strikes me as Soth's signature, and I don't like it.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Crit: Alec Soth, Dissolutions (Sleeping by the Mississippi)

I was born in Minnesota, but my family left before I turned 1 year old. Later, as a young adult, I returned there for a decade.

More importantly, I lived my childhood with my parents, as one sometimes does, which parents included, as they do, my father. I liked and respected the old man, and he shaped me profoundly, as these things go. My dad was Minnesota to the bone. Poverty, farming, shooting squirrels, eating turtles, Lutheran values, all that business. I consider myself to be, at a modest remove, deeply Minnesotan. I firmly believe one should never, ever, wax too eloquent about how good things are right now, lest you attract the attention of forces beyond your ken. This makes me either Jewish or Minnesotan, and I am not Jewish.

So much for my bona fides.

I hate Sleeping by the Mississippi so hard. It literally makes me angry just to think about it. It has always struck me as a bitter and cruel look at the heartland of America, a heartland I know in my viscera to be both deeply flawed and extremely beautiful. Soth depicts the land and the people with equal brutality, with an unfairness that makes my knuckles go white. Much has been written about this body of work, but for reasons that have never made sense to me we don't hear much about the cruelty and bitterness that infuses it and most of Soth's work. Nobody has any trouble pointing out how shitty and mean Martin Parr's photos are, but somehow this idea hasn't made it to the mainstream of Soth criticism.

Whatever, though. Go look at the pictures if you don't believe me. There's probably more to it than dumb icy cruelty, but honestly I find myself incapable of locating it. I guess there's a certain formal well-made-ness in there somewhere.

tl;dr I take SbtM's cruelty very very personally.

Curiously, Soth himself seems to be a very nice fellow, not unlike Parr.

This is where I am coming from, anyway, so you know. Moving on to the "Dissolutions" project.

This fuckin' thing. Oh my god. It's an NFT project, currently visible on Obscura, at this link. That link will probably stop working within a year or so, but honestly, who cares?

What is this thing? Well, it appears to be the photos from the book, in order, with a couple of outtakes tacked onto the end. But wait, click on one of the photos and wait. What you're actually looking at is a short video, 92 seconds long, depicting what appears to be a print being dissolved in some sort of liquid bath, which will we take to be acid for the present discussion.  Clear liquid flows outward from some center dissolving the colors into blobs as it moves, the blobs float around and smear, and so on.

Is it a digital effect, or did Soth actually dissolve prints in acid and film the result? Again, who cares? It doesn't seem to matter.

Soth offers up this remark:

For my first commissioned NFT project, I wanted to make something that spoke directly to this transmutation of meaning from the physical to the ephemeral. Whether one dissolves the photographic emulsion or converts it to code on the blockchain, the heart of the art is not destroyed.

The NFT project isn't just another way to "collect" the photos from SbtM, which is good. Soth has thought up a wrinkle, an angle, a new thing which is related to the old thing, to sell here. I mean this in all seriousness: Well done, Alec. You put in some actual effort here, thought it through, developed and executed a concept. Respect. Let us examine whether it paid off.

Soth is claiming, I think explicitly, that the acid-bath routine is connecting the work to its new life as an NFT. The work is physically dissolved by acid, by analogy with the digital dissolution into pure concept on the blockchain.

To be honest, this is a stretch. The acid destroys and transforms. The original is gone, something new is offered up, an abstract set of blobs. This is old news, distressing prints like this has a very very long tradition arguably reaching back to the Pictorialists scratching furiously away at negatives.

As such, the one thing we learn from the long tradition of ruining photographs in an attempt to imbue them with meaning is that this doesn't work. It didn't work in 1895, and it doesn't work now. Indeed, it inevitably smacks of desperation. Pictorialism didn't really work for a bunch of reasons, partly because the artists doing it had no clear idea of what the hell they were about, but also because they were willfully working against the essential nature of the photograph. Sadakichi Hartmann's critique of Pictorialist photography is probably a good thing to re-read about now.

But ok, blockchain, digital dissolution, the becoming-of the token, maybe. The blobs made by the acid strike me as not-at-all the original, whereas the blockchain/token thing very much seems to be claiming to be the original in a funny hat. Still, there's some sort of concept here at least, and the fact that it doesn't work for me doesn't mean that it doesn't have some merit. Recall that I am coming at this from a place of incandescent hatred, and make adjustments as appropriate.

What leaps out to me as missing, though, is the link back to the original work.

You can dissolve any goddamned thing in acid, and Soth's concept works exactly as well. I could dissolve my dog in acid and claim that she's now an NFT, although she would probably object and since she is actually stronger than I am and has enormous teeth, the resulting video would be a lot more interesting than Soth's Dissolutions.

I don't see how this dissolution works conceptually unless it bridges the original work into the new thing, somehow. If it provided a link not from "here's some shit in an acid bath" but specifically from the body of work we know as SbtM to the digital world of the blockchain, it would actually make sense. Try as I might, I can't see how this is supposed to work.

I took a shower, to clean my filthy grub-like body, and stood there with hot water pouring over my head monologuing like some cut-rate supervillain:

I'm going down the river, my river, my conceptual Mississippi. There's a bed. There's a shopping cart. Glum dude. Another bed. Lotta beds. Trees and shit. River. River. How does the river, how does this river, become digital? Where's the offramp to the blockchain?

Nothing. I don't see how the river becomes the token via the acid bath. I can't find the link.

To be honest, I can't even imagine what you'd need to make a body of work, as a body of meaning in its own right, connect to the NFT/blockchain world, via this alchemy of acid dissolution. I just don't see how this can be made to work, at all, for anything. It's just shit dissolving in acid and becoming digital. It's the sound of one hand clapping, a book in which by some non-Euclidean geometry all the pages are recto.

In the end, without that connection, I don't see how this is anything more than the dopey gimmick it appears at first glance to be. The connection from SbtM to the acid-bath doesn't seem to me to exist, and I find the acid-bath analogy to the digitalization to be well-executed but in the end unconvincing.

I don't think this thing works.

But then, I wouldn't would I? All I can claim is to have, as honestly as possible, sought to make sense of it, and to have failed.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

That Ole Authoritarian Tango

If you pay attention to mainstream photography media, social and otherwise, you will notice pretty often calls to remove the verb "to shoot" from the photographer's vocabulary. The association with firearms is harmful and unnecessary, and photographers are already just so exploitive, we should remove this and use "capture" or something.

This oft repeated platitude is often repeated by vaguely amiable fairly nice people who simply want the world to be a better place.

It originates, though, in a much less healthy impulse: the urge to force people to bend the knee and submit to demands. It doesn't matter what demands. As Orwell noted, the point of power is power, and this applies even to the most venal and trivial situations.

It is also, of course, deeply stupid. The verb "to shoot" is ubiquitous in sport, but somehow nobody seems willing to tell soccer (football, <cough>) players to stop "shooting" at the goal. Nobody tells someone facing a challenge to avoid terminology like "best shot" or "shoot the moon." Nobody suggests that fountains do not shoot water into the air ("consider less loaded options like 'ejaculate.'")

It turns out, once you start looking around, photography is absolutely wall-to-wall with these kinds of trivial demands that one kneel.

These days it's popular to dress it up in an ethical/social-justice framework. Informed consent is so necessary but at the same time, somehow, no degree of informing is ever quite enough. No practical, real, degree of consent is actually satisfactory. We see it also, though, in aesthetic demands. Your pictures should be in focus, or not, the colors should be accurate, nor not, or whatever. Sequence this way, not that way. How can you expect to be properly derivative of <name> unless you slavishly copy and submit to my program?

Everyone wants to tell you what you're doing wrong, everyone wants you to submit to their program.

The broadest form of this I have noted is people who are constantly angling for the role of curator and/or critic, based on little more than a kind of dopey personal taste. I can name any number of names of people who have been beavering away trying with more or less success to build a kind of authority, invariably without actually doing much work developing a basis for that desired authority. They skim Barthes and Benjamin, and then they spend years banging away conflating their personal taste with some objective notion of quality, marketing the shit out of themselves.

I dare say this impulse is universal, but from where I sit this morning, it strikes me that photography seems especially full of know-nothing idiots striving against all the other know-nothing idiots to be put "in charge" of some nebulous something or other, to become the boss, to be granted the authority to direct Photography writ large.

Honestly, ignore all these fucking people. Ignore me too.

Or rather, read or listen to what seems useful, and sort it carefully. Throw away anything that's just a demand that you kneel, whether first-hand or tenth, and take away the bits and pieces that you can actually use.

In the end, it's just rectangles full of blobs of tone and color. As long as you don't wind up outing some rat to a mob assassin, nothing you do is going to cause any actual harm, no matter how badly you do it.


Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Agency, Identity and our Response to a Photo

There has been a mild social media shitstorm generated by the usual tiny cadre, featuring among other pictures the one I talked about in these remarks earlier.

One of the oft-repeated claims in these things is "you'd never see white people photographed this way" which is sometimes true, but often not. Therein lies an interesting observation.

In this case, for instance, we're talking about rape survivors. We would, we are told, never see pictures of white rape survivors. The pictures of dark skinned rape survivors are, we are told, inherently exploitive. We are told that the subjects lack the necessary visual literacy and understanding of media to truly give informed consent. Not everyone says all these things, but these things have all been said.

Put all together, though, these remarks paint a remarkable picture of the attitudes of these warriors for justice, and their attitude toward the people in Africa.

Africa, I have been informed by trusted sources, is not just a gigantic jungle thinly populated by naked savages. It has cities, culture, civilization. It even has media, gasp. The idea that someone with brown skin lacks visual literacy and an understanding of media isn't just wildly racist, it's completely fucking insane.

In reality, we see tons of pictures of white rape survivors. We literally have books by rape survivors with jacket photos right on the book. This is totally a thing. The survivor bravely testifies to her struggles etc etc. This is also precisely the theme of the controversial photos, that these survivors are voluntarily and with courage testifying to their trauma, their struggle, etc, in order to serve a greater good.

I think that what is going on is a pretty nasty dive into our human psyches.

The truth is that I, and many others, are far more willing to accept a narrative of exploitation, of lack of agency, of ignorance, when we see a photo of a brown person than when we see a white person.

I don't know which of the Justice Warriors, if any, are consciously exploiting this, but it is certainly their method: present a photo of a person of color, essentially without context, and then simply state as a bald fact that the subject was exploited by the photographer, is ignorant of media, and lacks agency. Broadly, people will accept this as simply true.

Seeing functionally the same photo of a white person, we're much less willing to accept this story, and will tend to apply a story of agency, of knowledge, of informed consent.

We tend to see the photos of African woman literally as in a different category as functionally identical photos of white women. We believe the story that we would never see "these" photos of a white woman. In a sense it is true, because when we see the white woman, we do not experience it as one of "these" photos but rather as one of "those" photos, which photos we consider as completely different. The difference, though, lies within us not in the blobs of color and tone that we see on the page or screen.

This is a real effect, I think, but it's not clear what the photographer is supposed to do about it.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Award Winning!

I am an award-winning photographer now. I can no longer talk to you unless you have also won an award I'm afraid. It's a cruel but necessary rule.

Here's the proof: Jolt Awards

You may admire the Award Winning Photos here.

Snappy Kraken is a marketing company, and they really really like off-beat stuff. Which, it turns out, is kind of what I am good at. I've done an ongoing campaign in the form of a long series of photos for my wife's business blog, which Snappy Kraken noticed, and they gave me an award. So there. As part of this, I wrote up something of a discussion of "muh pro-cess" and here it is.

When my wife launched her financial planning practice in 2016, I offered to supply her with at least some of the photography. Since I am not a professional as such, she used (with great effect) an actual professional to create the pictures for her main web site. I ended up making pictures for the blog portion, which is to a degree a separate little world of its own. Being generally around, I am conveniently available to make these pictures!

We began with a LEGO minfig, a whimsical and charming miniature female character that seemed to suit the mood of the blog pretty well. Rapidly, though, we realized that this would lead to copyright problems. The LEGO Group is generous, but likely not that generous. I had read within the last few years a book by Molly Bang, Picture This: How Pictures Work, in which she uses a little red triangle to tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood, and to illustrate how emotion and story can be carried with simple graphical shapes. I was pretty sure that a pink triangular block was unlikely to trigger anyone's copyright rights, and so I painted an appropriate scrap of wood, a scrap about 2 inches high.

I'd like to pretend that the concept fell into place fully formed at that point, but that wouldn't be true. What is today a pretty well fleshed out set of ideas has grown fairly organically, by fits and starts, over several years. Rather than try to reconstruct those half-remembered twists and turns, I will instead tell you where we are today, the complete concept. Not every photo succeeds, but I think that en masse and occasionally even one-by-one, the photos hit all or more of the marks.

Block woman, the little pink triangle, is deliberately intended as the avatar of the blog reader, in a sense the ideal customer of Flow Financial Planning, LLC. Pink, despite all efforts, remains resolutely feminine in the modern West. Block woman struggles with the kinds of decisions which that reader might also struggle with; she triumphs likewise in the same ways. The intent is that she should be relatable. She connects the reader to the problem in the blog post.

Using the ideas from Bang's book, I try to create simple scenes which capture some essential idea from the accompanying blog post, ideally some moment of confusion or difficulty or triumph. To be honest, often that's simply too hard to represent visually (how does one photograph a Donor Advised Fund?) and we end up with some silly visual pun, which may or may not even read. Nevertheless, ideally we see block woman palpably struggling with, or solving, exactly the problem the blog post is trying to shed some light on.

At the same time, the pictures try to connect with the Flow brand. Block woman herself is more or less the pink color from the corporate logo, and I will sometimes work in the green or the gold color as well. Every photo has a largely imperceptible vignette applied which is done with the Flow logo's blue. I honestly have no idea if the vignette "reads" but at the very least it helps bolster the common "look" that the blog photos have.

I remind myself regularly of the notion that 50% of marketing doesn't work, we just don't know which 50%, so we do all of it anyway.

Normally, but not always, I try to create an airy, open, warm sensation in the photo. Technically, I lighten up the middle tones a trifle, and render the color palette a little on the warm (yellow/red) side. This openness and warmth, combined with the slightly whacky vibe of an anthropomorphized little-pink-triangle, is aimed at creating an overall vibe of optimism and comfort. The goal is something like "she struggles just as you do, but it's going to be ok, it's a sunny day in block-land!"

To create the emotional content, such as it is, I spend a surprising amount of time getting block woman positioned and/or tilted just so. She leans in to listen, she jumps back in surprise, she hunkers down in worry. Props lean in to threaten, are distant and out of focus to be inaccessible, or loom over the little pink triangle who, we hope, tends to glare back with confidence.

In the ideal blog photo, we have an avatar that the reader can relate to, in an optimistic situation relative to some problem that the reader has or can imagine having, which is also subtly connected to the Flow brand through the use of color.

If the result is funny too, well, so much the better.

If you are one of the little group of shitweasels who are now thinking "I should send a vaguely threatening email about How Problematic Molitor Is to someone" know this: a) I will find out b) I will publish your email and c) I will relentlessly mock you for being so attentive to someone you loudly claim to pay no attention to, ya weird little stalker.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Something to Look At

Here's a photo:


This was shot by Magnum photographer Newsha Tavakolian, and was the center of an extremely small shitstorm on social media (certain people who spend a lot of time loudly shouting that you have to protect identities of marginalized people are now taking exception to the admittedly crude method used to protect the identity of a marginalized person. uh, I think. Honestly either it's not super clear what's so problematic, or maybe I'm not paying much attention on account of I don't care.)

Let's look at this thing. There is a black person, gender indeterminate I think, wearing a pink top, possibly a t-shirt. The background is dark, some sort of interior wall? There are two slender vertical columns that appear to be wooden or similar, apparently supporting a dark fabric. This could be a makeshift studio, or the inside of a tent, or some kind of more permanent structure.

Notably, and most importantly, the figure has a net draped over their head and face. A friend might recognize them, but to my eye they are rendered thoroughly anonymous, although some sensation of an expression comes through. While the hairstyle (if indeed this person has any hair on their head at all) is completely concealed, the net is draped in ways reminiscent of hair slightly past the shoulder. One might imagine, for instance, cornrowed hair draping in a similar way, although of course we have no way of knowing a priori if this person would or would not consider such a hairstyle remotely appropriate.

It's not clear whether or not the drape of the net is intended to suggest hair, but it's certainly possible. The suggestion of hair is so strong, to my eye, is that my initial impression is that the subject's back is turned, and we're looking at hair down their back. It almost feels like a Rick James quotation, if you squint, which is extremely weird and arguably very very inappropriate in-context. It cannot, not seriously, be taken as a conscious Rick James reference, but it's what comes to my mind.

The subject, insofar as we can make anything out, seems to have a neutral-to-subdued expression, the body language is consistent with a subdued manner as well. The subject's sightline is a bit to the side, away from the light. Possibly contemplative or bored, possibly looking at something to the photographer's left.

The surrounding information tells us that this person is a woman who lives in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and is a rape victim.

Let us assume, without much reason, that the net covering her face was not simply the only acceptable expedient for disguising her identity. It is certainly possible that it was, and that could be explored, but it's not the possibility I am interested in here.

This photo belongs to a genre of "documentary" photography, which isn't very documentary. The idea is to present as documents things that are actually so larded up with art and artifice that they are in no useful way actually documents. They do not function as documentary photographs, but rather as often poorly conceived conceptual art projects. Indeed, you might as well consider them as second-rate conceptual art, larded up with "news-ish" intention and context, in order to lend some sort of gravitas to a second-rate project.

What, exactly, are we to make of this picture?

If a photograph is a portal to somewhere, where does this portal lead? To a darkened room with an anonymous figure draped, incongruously, in a net. To a darkened room where it is obvious to anyone that a conceptual art piece is being shot. Either that or it's some spy movie, Unlike most such obviously-studio setups, though, there isn't even any clear meta-story.

A model on an obvious set, wearing Gucci and wrangling a pair of borzois, is trying to tell a story. To be specific, a meta-story of sorts, in which Gucci is associated with wealth, power, and dogs. In Tavakolian's picture, and in myriad similar ones, there's no meta-story. It's just an anonymous figure with a net on her head. To be fair, sometimes photos in this genre do point to some meta-story, but all too often the gesture is weak, or absent.

There might be something interesting in here about "news." Perhaps it's that real life is nuanced and subtle, at least when compared with the blunt instrument of Gucci Branding, so no gesture in this sort of thing can have the muscle of the Gucci ad. If so, this suggests that the entire idea is bankrupt and should be junked. Just shoot straight documentary photos and leave the conceptual art to the artists.

This picture strikes me as much like Cristina de Middel's "The Afronauts" which has the same kind of surreal photos of Africans, but which, in a supreme instance of weirdness, might actually be pretty accurate representations of an actual "space program" that Zambia had running for a while. It's a legitimately wild set of photos built on a legitimately wild genuine occurrence, but it has the same vibe as this photo.

Magnum does seem to be scraping up a lot of these people. It seems almost like it might be their Thing now. Not sure it'a great way forward.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Something to Look At

Here's a photo:

Front and center we see a Cigar Store, UNITED CIGARS, with a busy shop window that looks like it sells a lot of stuff. Film, cigarettes, probably candy and pens and envelopes. To the right, a marquee for a theater of some sort, showing "My Friend Irma Goes West" whatever that is. Above that, a blade sign advertising something ending in "MOUNT."

There's some sort of strung-up fluttery crap that seems to come from the blade sign down to the theater marquee, but I cannot make any sense of it.

The sidewalk in front of the theater is crowded, people appear to be crossing the street on the extreme right of the frame, but nobody crosses the street in the foreground. A striped awning suggests another small storefront behind the cigar store, but before the theater entrance.

Above the sign for the cigar store, a sign for Marigold Cafe which evidently serves Chop Suey. To the left of the cigar store, a shop that buys diamonds and "old gold" whatever that might be.

Other details: the street in the foreground has rails, perhaps for streetcars in each direction. The clothing of the people is consistent with 1950s America. The shutter speed is slow, perhaps 1/8 of a second or so, sufficient to render people walking moderately toward the camera fairly sharply, but someone hurrying to cross the street is a blur. There is a man looking directly at the camera who may be hollering, talking, or perhaps his mouth is just hanging open.

There may be a cat in the doorway to the cigar store. There is some sort of newsstand or similar at the base of the street lamp at the right of the frame.

A little research along with the information which accompanied the photo (which gave the location) tells us this is a view from Los Angeles, looking across Hill St, and down 6th St, facing to the southeast. The theater is the Paramount, which did not require a lot of hard guessing, and it was showing a movie released in 1950 (July 4 according to one source), a Dean Martin/ Jerry Lewis vehicle, a sequel to "My Friend Irma."

This dates the photo to, probably, summer of 1950. The Paramount was shuttered in 1960, so this is certainly prior to that date. United Cigar was a going concern in this entire era, as were LA street cars.

This intersection was a major one in the LA streetcar system, with the Hill Street rails carrying cars for both the active systems. 6th Street also carried street car traffic. Close inspection of the upper part of the photo shows aerial wires, possibly for the streetcars (which were electric in the 1950s). This suggests, but does not prove, an early 1950s date as the streetcar lines began to convert to buses in 1955.

The frame dimensions suggest a 4x5 negative, although of course anything can be cropped. This might be some sort of Graphic Press Camera held with a steady hand, or something tripod mounted. It seems a peculiar size for this sort of photo on this date, but certainly people were running around with both Speed Graphics and View Cameras at the time.

The Marigold Cafe seems to have been a going concern pre-war, to the extent that one web page claims the US Military were banned from entering the establishment. One wonders why, but not very hard. It appears to have continued its operation into the 1950s. The attentive will note that the sign seems to suggest that it is either across 6th street or around the corner behind the cigar store. There is lettering that begins "Entrance ..." which presumably ends with either "across street" or "around corner" but I cannot tell which. The striped awning noted above might well be the Marigold. The prewar address of 329 West 6th seems to be consistent with that location.

The entire Paramount building with its associated small storefronts was evidently razed, and in its place now stands one of those weird "Jewelry Mart" complexes that one always suspects are in fact vast money laundries, somehow, that sell a bit of jewelry on the side for cover.

The fire hydrant seems to have been replaced, and moved a little to the right, although it's still that same weird style. The street lamps, regrettably, are now contemporary ugliness.

I am irrationally fascinated by the left-to-right pedestrians hurrying to cross 6th, in contrast with the pedestrians sauntering toward us to cross Hill. I half-imagine a street car just out of frame, moving right to left, about to mow down any foolish walker who tries to cross Hill. I can imagine our camera man, waiting patiently for the traffic to clear, and seizing this singular instant when no streetcar or automobile obstructs the view. I have shot across a few streets in my time.

The fellow looking at us might be wondering how it's going, or yelling at the cameraman "don't take my picture!" or who knows what?

In the end, it's not a particularly interesting photo, is it? It's just a sort of slice of life, the framing is wonky. Is it a picture of a cigar store (get closer, then!) or a picture of an intersection (turn to your right, then!) and once you see it, you cannot unsee the idea that it's actually one of those rare split seconds when the street is clear, and therefore falsely appears to be deserted.

Anyway, this was posted by the LA Public Library as "date unknown," retweeted by Dr. John Edwin Mason, and this whole mess started when I thought "I could probably date that" and so I did.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Let's Read This!

Here is an essay by Andrew Jackson, which essay is getting passed around by the usuals as a must-read, so important, and so on. This is normally compelling evidence that the piece is anything but, but I read it anyway, and it made me think! Which is great, right? I mean, I don't agree with a lot of it, but thinking is good! Here are my thinkings!

First and foremost, this piece is a restatement of Mr. Jackson's constant argument, which is that Black photographers take different pictures, presumably also photographers of any established Identity take different pictures, and that therefore White photographers ought to be excluded from taking certain kinds of photos where their Identity means they take Bad Photos. Where Mr. Jackson mentions his own "Double Consciousness" he is referring to his ingenious argument that, since he grew up in dominant-white culture, he can also see and photograph as a White person. This is a very clever argument, and in fact is quite sound given the philosophical basis he's starting from.

It is also, transparently, a rationalization of "you should give me all the Black assignments, but also let me compete at least on level ground for all the White assignments as well."

The fact that it is a rationalization doesn't make it wrong, though.

I find the fact that he chose to use his father's death as a jumping off point for another essay reiterating his constant theme to be slightly icky, but then, maybe it's also the perfect time, I dunno.

Set these things aside.

Mr. Jackson's position is that he, as a Black man, takes different pictures than would a White person, and he offers up his photo of tassels as somewhat unconvincing evidence of that.

It is on this point that we disagree. In virtually any genre, the photographs are simply a given. As I have remarked repeatedly (we all have our constant themes, don't we?) photojournalistic pictures are not made to show what is different and unique about an event, but rather to show what is the same. They reify the event by connecting it to all the other events of the same type. Your skin color doesn't matter, your gender, your sexual preference, none of it matters. You will, to first order, produce the same photos as anyone else.

This is fairly obvious for photojournalism, but I think much the same holds true across genres. Your identity, generally, does not shine through. Your photos, one-by-one, look pretty much like everyone else's, perhaps with a little personal flair, perhaps not.

The example of John Ford, which Mr. Jackson uses early on, is telling. On the one hand, maybe Ford didn't shoot the African American soldiers because of their skin color. On the other hand, in War Photography we almost literally never see any kind of logistics work. The closest we come is infantry guys sitting on boxes of stuff between battles.

D-Day was, I dunno, 99% logistics. A months-long logistics efforts that led up to a few days of intense combat. Yet, the photos of D-Day, that visual record, contains nothing of logistics. Did Ford lower his camera because the subjects had dark skin, or because they weren't doing anything "interesting?" Probably a bit of both, eh?

Nevertheless, I don't think Mr. Jackson is completely out in left field.

People with different identities, when assigned a story, will generally take the photos that go with the story, regardless of identity. But which stories do they choose to tell?

Gordon Parks gave us a Harlem Gang Leader. You can go on about how his being Black made his photos extra-Black if you want, but that is to miss the point. It's not the photos, it's the story itself that's relevant here.

Female photographers are giving us stories that simply wouldn't occur to male photojournalists. Even now we, at least I, cannot help thinking of these stories as "background." When I see something about, I dunno, Ethiopian Women Something Something Schools or whatever, I think of it as filling in the details around the Real Story. This is deeply stupid of me, but there you are.

Life is rich, broad, deep. It is certainly true that our cultural identity shapes which slices of life we see as important, as worthy. What is to me trivial is to a child the purest magic. What seems to me as just something the kids are doing is a new style of street dance that is going to dominate the world of dance for the next ten years, starting next year. I literally don't see it. But someone does.

I do not agree with Mr. Jackson that he should get special access to stories deemed Black. I do agree, though, that the stories he might choose to tell are not the ones I would tell. I'd be happy to read those stories, though. Further, it's not even merely that he and I are different people. The fact that I am White and he is Black probably is pretty clear in the stories we might choose to tell, even though our pictures one-by-one don't look much different (I will stipulate that his are likely better. I'm just a mook who struggles with his camera.)

It's not that your identity makes you take individual pictures in some special way, in some distinctive way, in some way that Reveals Extra Hard. Identity doesn't change the pictures much at all.

Identity changes the stories that we tell.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

"Light and Shadow"

It's been a while. Busy times. Nothing wrong, just busy. Also, this took a while to pull together, largely because of the names.

After the Second World War the sovereign but somewhat artificial state of Czechoslovakia was re-formed to more or less its inter-war state, and integrated into the Eastern Bloc. Not a proper soviet but not western either. Not, as we might have described it in less cynical times, "free" as such.

In 1953 Stalin died, for whatever that is worth. In 1962, the sculptor Niezvestny clashed over art with Kruschev and, this is what makes the episode notable, was not murdered for his temerity. In the 1950s, according to the thumbnail sketches I have gently skimmed, Czechoslovakia was doing pretty well, with minor kerfuffles over various things typical of socialist states. In 1968, Czechoslovakia experimented with more freedom and was slapped down quite hard, but this seems to be accepted as the beginning of the end for both the unified state and the socialist experiment in it.

In the West, the 1950s see something of a turn away from Modernist photography toward a social documentary mode. Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson both published their books in this interval; The Family of Man exhibition opens at the MOMA in 1955; more generally the MOMA exhibitions are leaning hard on humanist/social documentary photography. Of course, it's been around since at least the early twentieth, but what we're seeing is a shift toward it as the dominant format after WWII.

At this point I assume you are wondering why on earth I am telling you this.

The point is I bought a book. It's a survey of Czechoslovak photography, published in 1959. I bought it because I liked the pictures.

I still like the pictures. Indeed, I bought it because a quick flip through suggested that it was a nice catalog of modernist photographs by photographers I had never heard of, which suggested something about modernist photography (anyone can do it) that I wanted to think about more. Plus I kind of like modernist photos.

Further inspection revealed that it's a bit more than that. Also, further introspection reminded me that 1959 is awfully late for a book of modernist photos.

The book is very much a survey. Its sequencing is very much of its time: geometrical coincidences get you from one page to the next, while subject matter forms a kind of chapter-like structure in the large. There's a lot of recognizable modernism in here, but also some humor, a fair bit of kind of pastoral charm that segues seamlessly into Socialist Realism, a little social documentary, and a miscellany of things I don't care to much classify.

It's very much a whole thing, the book is well enough (bluntly enough) sequenced to flow pretty well.

The pictures are very nice, all of them, and succeed in creating a larger sense of "photography in Czechoslovakia" although, of course, this could be an illusion. It might be the cherry-picked 2% that the editor likes, and nothing at all like what was actually going on. Let us assume, though, that it's giving us the sense of something that was truly happening.

The pictures that initially got my attention, and caused me to buy this book, were this sort of thing:
František Ježerský - Embankment in Nauplie

Which appears verso opposite this one:
Miroslav Frančík - Misty Dawn

which should give you a sense of the sequencing here. But there's more modernism, like these:
Viktor Radnický - Daily

Fred Kramer - The Handbag

Miroslav Hák - Face in the Shadow

Jindřich Brok - Karlovy Vary Glass

But then we start to get into this sort of thing. This feels very Margaret Bourke-White, but without quite that hard-edged modernist flavor:

Petr Zora - Weekday

Josef Tichý - Exhibition

In context we begin to see the two above in more of a Socialist Realism light. This isn't just modernism, although it's borrowing from those visual ideas, it seems to be more in service of a romanticized version of Industrialism. The entire book is reproduced a bit soft, but I think the two industrial scenes are a bit softer, indicating that they're shot and printed a bit softer. Almost a Pictorialist vibe here.

Moving on to more overt Realism:

Dr. Jelena Látalová - Help-mates

This feels shot hard-edged and contrasty, but the subject matter could almost literally not be more overtly Socialist Realism. I kind of love it for the sheer kitschiness!

Delightfully, though, we have a bunch of other stuff mixed in which is on the hand kind of generic, but well made. We can, if we squint, see influences, although to be fair it may well be parallel development.

The book opens with this picture:

Jaroslav Tejnksý - Symphonic Poem

which on the one hand is a perfectly generic, if pleasing, pastoral scene; but on the other hand it's also a pretty good joke once you notice the title and the birds on the wire. This sort of whimsy seems to be in play throughout, although never again quite this overt. These are people having fun taking pictures.

There's a whole section of misty pastoral photos like this, which lead to a misty landscape with a shining train track which leads into a section of trains. (Just as there's a whole section of statuary ending with nude statues, which leads into a whole section of nudes, and so on, you get the idea.)

Magdalena Robinsonová - The Mountains Awake

Note that name. The -ová suffix follows the -son suffix which delights me in stupid ways.

Here's a picture that sure looks like a clear reference, but then, cobblestone from a balcony seems to be irresistible to anyone with a camera:
Dagmar Hochová - The Dancers

There is a bit of what probably counts as social documentary, although it all feels a little more Stieglitz than Evans, somehow. Like this one, for example:

Václav Jírů - At The Crossroad

In the end, I am very pleased to own this book. It's got some age on it, for character, but it's in excellent shape, and I like the pictures quite a lot.

I am pretty sure it reveals a Czechoslovakia that is well behind the times, but catching up and also enjoying its own set of quirky ideas. Photography from what was, at least in some sense, a rosier period.

Friday, April 8, 2022

Damn It

News reports suggest that occasional, but insightful, commenter JG has killed himself. I knew he was going through a difficult time, but he assured me he was managing. I failed to sell him a copy of Vigilante.

I am annoyed and upset. He was talented, interesting, and worth having around. I did not know him well, I have not lost a close friend, but I'm going to miss his occasional irascible but entertaining emails, and his ludicrous camera builds.

Hoist a beverage for JG, anyways.

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Something to Look At

Further to my previous remarks on the propagandization of everything, let's look at this picture:



This is a picture of a child, still in diapers. Perhaps 2 or 3 years old. The child is white, has blond hair, is standing in front of a small collection of typical Western kid stuff. A drawing of a face on the floor, developmentally consistent with a substantively older child. There's a small table and a chair, child sized. Some sort of wheeled toy on the table.

On the child's back, some writing. A name, Vira Makov (perhaps); under that a birth date, consistent with the apparent age of the child; under that some numbers which resemble telephone numbers. The writing of the name is a bit clumsy, the "k" (if that is indeed a k) appears to have been a bit of a hack job. The numbers are written in a childish hand, the 9s in particular are typical of a child's writing.

The child's name is actually Vira Makovii, the tiny marks are in fact a pair of i's, I think.

The writing might not be inconsistent with the picture of a face that lies on the floor. Faces drawn like that tend to come quite late, well after basic literacy but perhaps before good penmanship.  

The phone numbers are labelled "MAMA" and "PAPA" respectively.

Ok, so what?

This photo is being tweeted about with this text: "Ukrainian mothers are writing their family contacts on the bodies of their children in case they get killed and the child survives. And Europe is still discussing gas." which is a reference to the war in Ukraine and, I assume, the ongoing negotiations with Russia over purchasing of oil and gas products from Russia, by Europe, in the face of sanctions leveled by Europe against Russia.

I freely admit that the situation is a clusterfuck, and politically dicey at best on any number of fronts.

Note also that the text does not actually claim that this child here has had this information written on it by its mother, although that is surely the implication.

There are a number of anomalies here. Let us be clear though: I do not consider any of these things to be "smoking guns" or "proof of fakery" or any of that. They're anomalies, and that's it.

First, why is the text in Latin letters? With the exception, possibly, of the letter that seems to be a k, this is written in a non-Ukrainian lettering. The k does not, however, seem to me to resemble any Ukrainian letter, and Vira Makov (Makovii or Makoviy) is perfectly reasonable Ukrainian name. I lean toward the theory that the apparent k is in fact a k.

Second, what's up with the second phone number? Ukraine's country code is 380, not 38, nor 389.

Third, why are the parents putting their own phone numbers on the child, if the fear is that they'll be killed, while the child survives?

Fourth, why is the handwriting so childish?

All of these anomalies can, in all probability, be explained away. Possibly the Latin lettering is more legible in neighboring countries. Possibly PAPA has a North Macedonian phone number. Possibly the thinking is that if one parent is killed or disabled, the other can then be located. And maybe mom's handwriting is just bad, and/or the child is super wiggly.

It is worth thinking these things through, I think, and considering various possibilities.

It is also worth noting that this writing is entirely consistent with a smartass older sibling simply labeling their younger sibling for purposes unknown. My own children do exactly this sort of thing. They might write "FOR SALE" or even "FREE" in addition.  

The point to take away here, though, is that this is the kind of information we're being expected to take at face value.

We are given the story about the desperation of Ukrainian parents, actually let me back up, of Ukrainian mothers, and the things they are doing to give their families the best chances in the face of war, aggression, and violence. The picture reifies that story.

The response is universal: OMG how awful canyouimagine

Absolutely nobody is looking at the picture. The fact that the picture is using Latin lettering makes it accessible to the western audience. The same child with Віра Маковій written on her back is less accessible to western eyes, more foreign. It doesn't matter whether someone wrote this specifically to seduce western eyes, or whether it's a happy coincidence that Latin lettering, so easy for us to read, happened to be chosen. I do not think it's a coincidence that the picture which resonates with us in the West is the picture that uses Latin letters, though.

The point here is not that the picture is fake, or dubious, or disingenuous. It may or may not be completely honest and exactly what it depicts, and frankly that doesn't matter to my point.

The point is that if we'll accept this picture as reifying the text that accompanies it, then we'll also accept lies and nonsense, even very shoddily made lies and nonsense.

Quite apart from any ground truth in play here, the structure of this particular bite of media is propaganda. It's an impressionistic dollop of text and picture which is not even remotely intended to be examined, to be criticized. You are supposed to gobble it down unexamined, along with a wide mosaic of similar bits and pieces, and to thereby reify your belief that Russia bad, Ukraine good.

As a westerner, I absolutely believe that Russia bad, Ukraine good. As a critic and an unreconstructed wanna-be Enlightenment-mook, I am pretty sure I know why I believe that.