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Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Balenciaga Ad!

Balenciaga, the luxury brand, definitely goes hard sometimes. I've talked about their ads before.

They put togther a little ad campaign, which includes these photos. Crappy screenshots are all that there is, because they pulled the little campaign immediately.





At first glance, there's not a lot going on here. At second glance, maybe you notice that the teddy bears the kids are holding are actually handbags, and that they (the bears, not the kids) seem to be wearing bondage gear.

In the last photo, there's a bunch of paperwork. The nearest bit, at the bottom of the frame, appears to be something related to a court case around kiddie porn, specifically "United States vs. Williams (2008)" in which the Supreme Court upheld some details about what is considered banned speech. I think the gist is that, in some cases, material that is not actually pornographic or obscene or whatever is nevertheless banned if it's sufficiently adjacent to kiddie porn in some sense that probably does not matter here.

Nobody knows what the rest of the paperwork says, because that's not the bait. The bait is in the bit at the bottom of the frame.

Anyways, sure, there's probably some "in-joke" cosplay embedded in here about whether or not they're engaged in banned speech, which they pretty obviously are not.

This has, of course, generated millions of dollars in free marketing for Balenciaga because internet scolds have very little else to do with their time. According to the now-standard script Balenciaga has pulled the ads, issued an apology, and blamed a nameless third party.

The reality is that they leaked it, of course. The "smoking gun" text contains nothing about kiddie porn, you actually have to search it up, or be pretty familiar with Supreme Court decisions around kiddie porn to make the connection. The word "sex" appears several times, but there's no reference to children visible at all.

Here is the full text of the smoking gun, which is the right-hand edge of a partial sheet of paper:

…estion that it is occurring.
…use is not sexual inter-
… but rather sexual inter-
… ed, even though (through
… ay not actually have oc-
… a reasonable viewer to
…aged in that conduct on
… e Speech Coalition,
… visual depiction of
… although the sexual
…t must involve actual
… This change eliminates any
…ld pornography or sex
…ors might be covered by the term
…rse."      

…statute, as we have con-
…l amount of protected

..are categorically
…Pittsburgh
…ons, 413
…Co.,
<illegible, maybe “…is”>



Somehow, the sleuths got from this to "kiddie porn" immediately. Hmm. I wonder how that happened. The only possible is the line "...ld pornography" which is ambiguous, and anyways the leading ell is pretty much illegible.

It occurs to me, a little later, that the papers in the background might be from the same case, and that the actual smoking gun is back there. The idiot influencer they slipped the story to may have picked up some random stick instead of the actual smoking gun, but it doesn't matter because once the connection is made the actual court decision can be found easily and the connection can be confirmed and nobody is going to notice that the shill picked up the wrong thing and blew their cover.

Ok, so this ad campaign is basically some kids holding teddy bears in bondage, which would be a little outré but whatever. Nobody would care. Slip in a paper with some text on it that refers to an Supreme Court decision around child porn, and it definitely changes the color of the ads. The decision, recall, tightens law around child porn, in response to an earlier decision that loosened it.

The content of the ads, we must admit, refers to kiddie porn. Obliquely, subtly, but it absolutely does.

Does it take any sort of position on kiddie porn? It does not. The Internet Scolds are, of course, going on at length about how Balenciaga is promoting child molestion and so on, but this is not content that is present in the photos.

Balenciaga essentially stood up, whispered "kiddie porn," and sat back down. That's it.

Is this tasteful? No, it is not. Does it consititute promoting kiddie porn, human trafficking, child molestation?

There is a school of thought that says you cannot say "kiddie porn" without appending a lengthy dissertation about how bad it is, and failure to do the second part is literally the same thing as supporting it. This school of thought is supremely dumb, but it definitely exists.

It is interesting to see how the hidden detail alters the sense of the thing, though. The photos become not merely kids holding teddy bears, and not even merely kids holding mommy's funny joke teddy bear, but the miasma of kiddie porn rather does infuse the whole thing. Since the photos steadfastly refuse to take a stand, and I think we can state that pretty unambiguously — references are present that introduce the subject, but there are no pro- or anti- signals, we are free to project whatever we want onto them.

Naturally, the scolds are doing their best to generate value for Balenciaga by projecting a "pro-" stance onto the photos, and dramatically freaking out and offering up long twitter threads of art history explaining how this has been a problem forever.

Meanwhile, Balenciaga's customers, who are mostly in China, and who almost uniformly do not give a single shit what the scolds think, are getting fed a steady diet of "Balenciaga is an edgy luxury brand, you should consider buying shoes from them."

It's solid marketing work. It's tasteless, and I'm not in favor. I admire the craft, though, I admire the craft.

Further information suggests that the legal documents appear in a completely different section of the web site in a completely separate ad campaign, and were never remotely adjacent to the pictures with the kids. No idea what to make of this, if true. It is possible that we're seeing a "story" about a free speech lawyer who wears Balenciaga shoes and owns Balenciga bags, in one section of the web site, and a completely different story about kids on another, unrelated, section of the same web site, and that Professional Scolds are simply mashing them together.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Woot!

My piece on the not-so-planted alarm clock in the Walker Evans photo is up on AD Coleman's blog. Long-time readers will have seen one or more variations on this piece here, over the years, but I finally got around to writing it up with footnotes and no swearing, and AD generously published it for me.

Read it here: Photocritic: The Case of the Appropriate Alarm Clock

I hope this puts the issue to bed, at least for me.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

The Shadow Selfie!

I don't care if shadow selfies are portraits or not, because that only depends on what you mean when you say "portrait." No, what I am interested in at the moment is what they actually are.

When a shadow of a human appears at the bottom of the frame, in the right place, it strikes us as the shadow of the photographer. While the presence of the photographer is always implicit in a photo, such a shadow tends to reify the presence, to make it explicit. At the very least, it tends to draw our attention to the fact of the photographer, and the accompanying fact that someone was looking at whatever we're looking at.

The window metaphor recedes, and a sort of seeing-through-another's-eyes comes forward.

This was exploited to great effect in the book Predator by one Jean-Marie Donat, who made a whole book of found photos in which the shadowed figure is wearing a hat. The photos are frequently of children, or young women. But really anything works, after a while.

Our natural reaction to any photograph is to invent a story, a world, to contain it. The presence of the shadow invites us to include the photographer in the story, it reminds us of their presence and nudges us to include them. Why are they there? Why are they photographing this, specifically? All of this optional, of course, we can still exclude the photographer. We can simply walk away without making up a story at all. The photograph, nevertheless, nudges us in these directions.

The book's title suggests a possible story for the photographer, a spooky one, and the effect is really quite something. I have not seen the book itself, but I've seen a smattering of photos and it's borderline electrifying. It requires only a single word, and a repeated simple motif to generate an entire creepy world out of what are in the end just a bunch of snapshots made by different people across 50+ years of time.

In general, I think this tends to support my general thesis about how we look at photos, and also has something to say specifically about the shadow-selfie.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Words! Words! Words!

There's a guy who shall remain nameless who is more or less notorious on a segment of social media for posting cute little "prompts for discussion" along with occasional photos from 20th century photographers, and relentless requests to sign up for whatever his latest stupid thing is where he will do the same thing.

It's the prompts that get me. Two recent ones are these:

Do we take a photograph or make it?
If a shadow selfie a portrait?

These are, I hope it is obvious, dumb questions. But why? Well, at least one of them is exhausted, but that's not it.

They are dumb because they are not questions about photography or photographs at all, but rather questions about words. Nobody who takes photographs is at all mystified by the process they use to take pictures. They know how their photographs come to be, in some detail. The question of make vs. take is what word you use to summarize the well understood process, not a question about the nature of the process.

Ditto shadow-selfies. Everyone knows what they are. You photograph your own shadow. That's it. Is it a portrait? That is a question about the meaning of the word portrait not a question about the nature of the shadow-selfie.

You could argue, perhaps, that by asking about the word we are asking about how we think about these photographs and photographic processes, how do we make sense of these objects for ourselves?

Well, ok, maybe, but then why not ask that instead? Asking it in the form of a glib prompt yields a whole spectrum of answers, ranging from "yes" to "no," and that's about it.

My point here is that I suspect a lot of what we think of as "philosophical questions about photography" is in fact just glib blathering about words. The underlying acts and objects are, in context, well understood so perhaps it appears that all that's left to discuss if what language we use to describe it (see also the ongoing "shoot" discourse.)

I claim that there are actually things we don't understand about the underlying objects and processes and that we might could talk about those. People are, as a rule, not fans. Some take the position that these things are not well suited to word-based analysis, but mostly people are just shy of tackling these things.

I'm a guy who arguably uses more words than practically anybody, and arguably way too many, to talk about photography and photographs. I like to think that I'm actually talking and thinking about the underlying nature of the objects and processes, though, and not just stupid language chopping.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Local vs Global

It's depressingly common for artists to do a bunch of shit, and then someone rolls up and says "oh yeah, some guy name Julio in Buenos Aires did that in 1997" and then the artist has to find something new to do. At least, this is the default.

You can wrestle around with your conscience and wonder if you're doing a new variation on Julio's thing, or whatever, but the basic understanding is that It Has Been Done and you'll go down as a mere copycat. There is an underlying assumption here, which is false: that assumption is that everything is done, essentially, on a global stage. Everything must be measured against the global stage.

The fact is that the people who live on my block have never heard of Julio or his work. It may even be that very few people have heard of Julio or his work, but in the Grand Tradition of Art none of this matters. It's been done. You will be revealed at a mere copier of Julio, and that's that. The people on my block will never get to see work of this kind, if we follow this to its logical conclusion. They'll never see Julio's work, because maybe Julio is in the end a pretty minor artist. They'll never see anyone else's either, because nobody wants to copy Julio.

This is deeply stupid.

The very idea of the global stage is fairly stupid. Yes, it's where the money mostly is, 60 billion dollars a year, spread across 3 million people, so everyone's also waiting tables in their spare time. The global stage sucks, everyone is starving, the art isn't really much better, and it's stifling local art because "Julio already did that."

Just make whatever. Honestly, go look Julio up and outright steal his shit. Who cares? Julio might, I suppose, but if so he's dumb. It's not like you're taking anything away from Julio, or that you're making any money in the first place. If you feel bad about it, reference Julio. "Inspired by Buenos Aires artist Julio, you can see his work <here>" or whatever.

Everyone on your block gets to see the cool, or meaningful, or beautiful, thing that Julio invented and that you rediscovered. Nobody loses anything. The world is, in a small way, better for it.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Halloween

I made more stuff for Halloween, and set it out in a local park for people to enjoy, which I guess some did. We (by which I mean mostly me, but other people are semi-interested) are trying to make it a Thing to do up the local small disused park for Halloween. This is what I made.


The arch is about 7-8 feet high in the center, the skulls and demon masks are life sized (the masks are actually my face.) There's electronics behind each skull. One is a disassembled flashy-light spooky-sound-effects thing that was playing through the red horn visible between the leftmost and center skull. You can see the flashy light as well, the silvery rectangle below the leftmost skull.

The center skull played bad piano music, alternating nursery rhymes played badly, "spooky" music, and occasionally Rick Astley, all in bangy piano clips played through the black horn below and slightly right of the center skull, from the guts of a very cheap toy electronic piano. The center skull had red LEDs in its eye sockets that pulsed along to the music.

Here it is on the bench, illustrating its awesomeness.


The rightmost skull just had some fairy lights that were wound around the hand on top of the arch.

The effect, standing under it, was somewhat cacaphonic. Overwhelming might be pushing it, but definitely A Lot.

Note, please, the masses of tiny homonculi climbing to be eaten by the rightmost demon. Thank you.

This skull is about 4 feet tall, 3 feet wide.


The eyes light up and flash and wink and whatnot in an absurdly complex pattern that took far too long to write the software for.



I consider it possible I went a little overboard. It was pretty fun though.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

The Populism of Photography

A constant source of irritation for me, and one that I absolutely should not let bother me even slightly, is the influence of popularity on photography.

There's a lot of creative things to do out there, and virtually all of them require a lot more commitment than photography. Do you want to be a poet? A novelist? A painter? An architect? Well, bad news, bub, you're going to have to go deep and work hard and you might still never get any good at it. But let me tell you about photography!

Photography is easy. It always has been, but at this point it's frankly absurd. Literally anyone can become a competent photographer, without even working particularly hard. Almost literally anyone can learn to bang out competent and attractive examples of any number of genres. Flower pictures? Portraits? Landscapes? Street? Yes to all of those. Sure, you might never be brilliant, but only weirdo critics can tell the difference between competent and excellent and, quite frankly, they're probably just making shit up.

The result of this is that virtually everyone who styles themself something of a photographer is thoroughly unserious about photography itself.

This rankles, but it ought not. There's genuinely no harm here. Everyone should go nuts.

This is in contrast to something like poetry. Among those who are remotely competent poets, many or most are obsessive about something in it. They might have a deep obsession with the history of the Lake poets, or they might really like something to do with partial rhyming, or whatever. The point is that a lot of poets are kind of weirdos about something poetic, and as a consequence they're pretty sympatico with other poetry weirdos. This is true even if the obsessions don't overlap.

Not so, photography. Virtually every photographer is a dilettante, and not obsessive at all about anything photographic. They quite naturally find the occasional obsessive to be weird and off-putting. They even tend to find the obsessives to be judgmental, sometimes because the obsessives can be pretty judgmental, but not always. When someone else is vigorously doing a thing differently than you do, it can feel like a judgement even when no such thing is intended.

The result of this is that most photography "content" in this modern era is aimed at the unserious, is aimed to read as non-judgmental.

The result is endless miles of incredibly anodyne, repetitive, essentially stupid material. The writing is a mix of industry news and "here's an old picture!" with occasional "here's a really boring but very pretty picture!"

As an obsessive, I hate this stuff. I am interested in my own weirdo niche obsessions, and secondarily I am interested in other people's weirdo obsessions. Very much in last place, I am interested in yet another round of "look, it's Diane Arbus' photo of twins, again, paired, again, with some stupid quote from Szarkowski!"

This, however, sells very very well indeed to the dilettantes. Much as I want everyone to love my weirdo obsessions, it all just feels like judgements to most photographers.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

The Least Cognitive Effort Principle

I got into a small discussion with a dude on twitter, in which it developed that I didn't actually have much of a point. He was remarking that Hannah Arendt identified the use of cliché as a marker of not-much-thought, with sometimes consequences.

Upon further thought, this meshes fairly neatly with a number of things I've been thinking of over the last few years. My belief is that humans husband their cognitive resources fairly jealously, and increasingly so in these over-mediated times. We simply refuse to expend actual thought on a lot of stuff, and have developed a lot of strategies to simplify those parts of our lives which we think of as "thoughtful." Specifically, we seek to simplify the process of reading, both literally and as a metaphor for consuming broader media. This is a generalization, I think, of Arendt's ideas around the use of cliché.

This shows up most obviously in literal reading, especially reading longer pieces of writing.

If you pay much attention, you realize pretty fast that people don't read. Not actually. What they usually do is skim, they look for keywords, they look for phrases, they look for a variety of clues. The purpose of the clue-finding is to help fit the text into a frame. The goal is to identify what the text probably says by matching it to a pretty small set of templates. If it's about color science in Sony cameras, it's probably either "Sony is awesome" or "Sony sucks" so all we have to do is work out which one it is and we're done. Surprisingly, people will do this same thing with a 30 word tweet. Rather than reading it, they'll pattern match it to a canned position, and assume it's a re-iteration of that position. A repetition, if you will, of the cliché.

This has a consequence that turns up in the way we write or more generally "produce content." At some level, we know that people are doing this, so we write in such a way as to ease the pattern matching. First, we adopt a well-established position that we're simply going to re-iterate, and then we lard the piece up with the right keywords and phrases to allow the casual reader to easily identify the position we're re-iterating.

This is, essentially, to deploy cliché as a communication device. The New Yorker will never challenge you, you can rely on it to perfectly meet your expectations, because it traffics in what we might broadly construe as clichés.

On both the production and consumption side, we're communicating in tropes and clichés, simply staking out the same positions over and over, saying the same things over and over. To be fair, original thoughts have always been rare and the bulk of human interaction has always been repetitive and shallow. It is possible that the glut of modern media has made this worse, though, as we more and more jealously guard our limited cognitive energy.

The principle in play here I have named the Least Cognitive Effort Principle. The LCE principle.

For the most part, movies and novels run on rails. We know how the superhero film is going to end up, the only variations are in which special effects will be deployed when and, honestly, that's not super important. Go ahead, take a pee break. The movie matches the template it telegraphed in the trailer and the first 2 minutes, it's fine. You know this film. You know this novel about the young woman in Brooklyn writing her first book, you can pretty much dip in anywhere. Everything is anodyne and predictable, because unless it is nobody will even pretend to read it, watch it, listen to it. We're too overloaded. There's a guy on twitter who just started a photo newsletter, got 20,000 subscribers out of the gate, and the first three newsletters have been the most uninteresting, anodyne, drivel ever.

People love it.

As I have mentioned repeatedly in the past, we see this with photographs.

News photographs do not function to show us what is new about the event, but rather what is the same. The photograph reveals the event to be exactly like the other similar events, we can pattern-match easily. Lefty protest. Righty protest. House fire. Politician speech (right/left.) Etc. We identify the photo immediately, and react not to the picture but to the template we've matched it to.

This makes people like me weirdos. I actually like expending brainpower on a photo, it's my hobby. This makes my understanding, my reading, of a photo different from that of some normie. I'm noticing the details that make it different, they're noticing only the large structure that makes it the same. They're identifying the underlying cliché.

Recall my Theory Of Photographs which is: that they constitute in a sense a portal to "there," that you react in a sense as if you were "there," and that you imagine a world to contain the photo. You imagine the time before and after the shutter press, you imagine the stuff just out of frame, and so on. You do this as an almost biological reaction to the hyper-detailed semi-reality of the photo.

The LCE principle implies a refinement: that you do all this imagining according to the LCE principle. You tend to imagine the world around the photo as pretty similar to yours, you ascribe motivations to the people in the photo in the cognitively-cheapest way possible. You're much more likely to imagine the policeman's emotions as matching whatever cheap opinion you have of cops than you are to actually inspect the cop's body language and expression. You'll react and imagine in response to large, easily identified, features of the picture, and you'll react and imagine as cheaply as possible.

Thinking is hard, and generally people try to avoid it. We speak, listen, read, and write in clichés and near-clichés, as much as possible.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Axes of "Meaning"

Something I have noticed and mentioned in the past is this idea of the "semiotically rich" photograph (or whatever, to be honest, it needn't be a photo.) What I mean is an object that seems to be loaded up with some sort of symbolic content, it's trying to mean something. It might or might not succeed in that goal.

Imagine, if you will, a photo of a beautiful flower lying on a wooden board, a still life. It's not trying very hard to mean anything, and it probably doesn't mean much of anything. It's pretty, and that's nice.

Now slice the flower cleanly across the blossom with a sharp knife. One clean stroke. Photograph that. You might even leave the knife in frame.

This photo is trying to mean something. There's the flower, beautiful and innocent, and it's been sundered! The blade gleams wickedly in the background. Good heavens! But what does it mean? Probably nothing, at least if it's shown to you without any specific context. This is what I have called a semiotically rich photo, it is freighted with meaning but doesn't actually explain itself at all. It is an enigma, fundamentally.

Now replace the flower with a crucifix, similarly hacked in two.

At this point the picture begins to explain itself, at least a little. A symbol for Christianity is chopped in two, surely this is some sort of comment on religion, or religiosity. We don't exactly have chapter and verse here, there remains a degree of enigma, but some sort of meaning is revealed here. The photo is semiotically rich and it also reveals itself.

I propose that there are in some useful sense two axes upon which a photo (or other art) can be placed. One is, roughly, how hard the object is trying to mean, and the other is how successfully it actually does mean. This suggests, of course, the photo that doesn't try very hard to mean, but which nevertheless carries a crystal clear message of some sort. I'm wrestling with that. Not sure it's a thing, and of course if it isn't, the model rather collapses.

This is mostly of note to me because it occurs to me that quite a bit of contemporary art is trying very hard to mean, but does not actually explain itself. You can see that the thing is semiotically rich, it's intensely trying to convey something, but what it's conveying is completely opaque. The little title card next to it will make all clear.

The sundered flower is, according to the title card, a symbol of lost youth, cut apart by age and yet still beautiful in a way.

Tomorrow, the flower might be a symbol for femininity, the knife a metaphor for rape.

The rich but empty artwork is remarkably flexible. The explanation usually can't be just any fool thing, it had to fit with the art, but there is some degree of flex here. If there isn't much flexibility, then more or less by definition the art is explaining itself, defying your efforts to explain it as something else. The art means all by itself without any help.

I have to say I don't much like rich-but-empty art very much, it feels like a bit of a cheat.

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Crit: Car Sick by Tim V.

The book I'm going to talk about here is a book you can't buy. It was a self-pub one-shot, in 2020. Full disclosure, when he was doing the book Tim generously allowed me a look at a pre-print PDF and I gave him some notes and a blurb. Honestly, the book was excellent before I looked at it. I have never checked to see which, if any, of my notes he took. He used my blurb, though, which was very flattering.

Tim is also busy dying now, and was supposed to die a month or so ago. He muffed it and apparently now has a few months left, which he is using to blog fairly aggressively at his excellent Leicaphilia blog. Since he got his brief reprieve, I felt that I should give him a chance to read my review of his book, which I then realized I had to write. So, here we are.

Since you can't buy a copy of it, I made one of those flip-through videos, which will give you at least a sense of the thing.



I like this book a great deal, I think it's an absolutely superb example of a particular form. It's not a form that I am myself well-suited to doing, and it's a bit old school. It's a form that I like a lot, nevertheless.

What we have here is a book very much in the character of Evans' American Photographs or Frank's The Americans and while I won't say this is better or worse than those, I think it can stand with them. They can go to the same parties.

It's a whole bunch of black and white photos, all taken from the windows of a car, over a couple of decades, with Leica cameras. Not my jam at all in terms of making. There is grain a-plenty if you're into that. There's quite a bit of car-window framing. The themes are all car-accessible: roadside sights, automotive stuff, roads, toll booths, other cars. There are no photos from the remote wilderness, no photos looking up, or looking down, no photos of interiors.

What is there, then?

There's a hell of a lot of structure. It's bookended with abstraction: you segue into the body of the book with a series of extremely spare rural road scenes, and exit the book with a fantastic disintegration into abstraction. In between, it's "Walker Evans" sequencing in spades. Each photo connects to the next through some graphical element, or some subject matter. One photo contains has a sign with a line drawing of a washer-dryer set, the next photo has an actual washer and dryer incongruously set outside. These photos are drawn from a very deep archive.

Yet at the same time there is much more going on here. It's not just one and then the next one. There are repeated themes, mainly that of small local religion, but also mass produced statuary, semi-rural decay, boarded up shopfronts, and so on. As often as not the themes overlap, it's a boarded up shopfront church, it's a mass produced concrete statue of the Virgin Mary, and so on. Not only is there a fairly robust linear structure, as in the two older books cited above, there is also a sonata-like repetition of theme, a constant circling back to specific tropes.

The photos themselves are all at least good. There are very few absolute bangers. Everything lands somewhere between the well-framed document of an at least mildly interesting subject, and the well-framed abstraction with only murkily discernible subject. Mostly, the photos lean toward the former.

There are any number of excellent juxtapositions, including what I consider to be the finest pairing of photos I have ever seen. At 2:05 in the video, the sign on the left quotes Proverbs, noting that one never knows what's going to happen (and therefore, presumably, you should go to church or something) and the signs in the photo on the right first urge you to pre-order Holiday Chicken, and second remark that a B-52 with nuclear bombs crashed 3 miles to the south in January of 1961. You can locate the intersection easily with a quick google search and a mapping tool. Indeed, one does not know what today will bring. They're strong photos of a specific kind, of a specific kind of Americana, juxtaposed in a witty way which is nevertheless more than just the joke. The pairing makes a legitimate philosophical statement.

The whole book is like this.

Not only is the book structurally and graphically interesting, though. It constitutes a kind of honest and affectionate portrait of rural, small-town, North Carolina. It is, I think, clear that Tim feels a profound warmth and at the same time a certain frustration and even disgust, with the state in which he lives, and where he has spent a lot of time. Perhaps he finds irritating the constant drumbeat of religion, especially this kind of small-time vaguely venal religion. At the same time, he can't leave it alone.

There is no sign that these are beautiful people or that there is anything special about them, or the communities they live in. Indeed, the few people depicted at all are, as often as not, rendered anonymous. At the same time, there is an affection, or at least a familiarity, from the photographer that comes through.

This is the kind of meaning that I aspire to. I am also in love with America, and frustrated, and disgusted by America. Perhaps I am actually just projecting my own conceptions onto this book, but damn it, it seems to accept those projections willingly even if it's not Tim's intention. I see the book as a kind of affectionate portrait of a dog who is dumb, ill-mannered, but basically, somehow, a pretty decent dog, a dog you love in spite of and maybe because of its many, many, flaws.

I like this book a lot, and I am extremely happy to have bought it when the opportunity came along.

Thanks, Tim! Well done!

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Antidote

It's a little after 1am, and I am on New Mexico 68 heading out of Taos toward Albuquerque. I have to get about 140 miles in the next three hours, to make my 5:35am flight home. It's raining. I have the hi-beams on, and my too-smart rental keeps turning them off because it thinks it's seeing oncoming traffic. There is not. There's nobody. I have the hi-beams on because I'm looking for wildlife. Hitting a deer or something larger has a best case scenario of destruction of the rental car, missing my flight, and a long wait for a replacement. Best case. Also the complex and probably expensive business of buying Avis a new car. Hitting something smaller, like a coyote, means I likely get to make my flight, but it's still an expensive pain in the ass because Avis will want someone to unfuck their car, which will probably be kinda fucked up.

I am focussed, scanning the road and roadside ahead for animal shapes, but more importantly, the flare of eyes. Looking for eyes on a highway in the USA is a nightmare, our highways are festooned with reflectives to help the inattentive stay roughly on the road. I am not inattentive, although every time I find myself distracted I return my attention forward fully expecting an elk coming through the windshield.

It rains all the way to Albuquerque. I meet no wildlife.

What am I doing here? I've just finished Antidote, Jonathan Blaustein's annual photo retreat just outside of Taos, and I'm on my way home. It's Balloon Festival time in Albuquerque, so staying the night there is insanely expensive, and also I don't like Albuquerque.

How was Antidote, you ask? I'm glad you asked, because that's what I'm here to tell you! It was great.

Ok, there's a bit more to it. It was intense, at times uncomfortable, at times angering, at times upsetting. It was inspiring and educational besides. It was fun. it was beautiful. It was really really fucking far away.

The format is thus: three days which begin with a reviving outdoor activity which connects us to nature and so on in a startlingly beautiful part of the world (this was, for this instance, a modest hike each day.) The afternoon of each day was some kind of intense photographic review/critique/conversation. And here lies the slightly forced connection to the hi-beam shenanigans this opened with. I spent something like 12 hours all up furiously trying to focus on questions around photography and photographs, and it was hard. But good. No metaphorical elk were launched through any metaphorical windshields, but there were moments.

On day one I had a nascent project critiqued by three separate people, each expert in their own way. Between us we reshaped the project completely, which rendered my little collection of four prints rather moot, but whatcha gonna do? This was the first point of discomfort. It's pretty un-fun to have people think really hard about what they might actually say about your work, because they will often find things to say that are not "ooo, you're such a genius, may I touch your biceps?"

On day two, it was group critique time, and we all mobbed one another in sequence. This was also uncomfortable, for the same reasons, but in my case doubly awkward because the work being critiqued was not what the work was going to be at all anyways, so I had to struggle to not waste everyone's time waving my arms to describe pictures that don't exist, and also to glean value from critique of the work that was present but only loosely relevant.

Tip: If your final product won't be 8x10 black and white prints, make that really really clear if you've brought 8x10 black and white prints, because everyone will quite naturally assume that you're planning to make 8x10 black and white prints.

Then Jonathan asked me if I was uncomfortable which I swear to god was very extremely irritating. I hid my irritation masterfully, I am sure. Of course I'm uncomfortable, omg, wtf, applesauce.

Throughout this Jonathan was leading the critique, and a point he hammered almost everyone with was, essentially, why are you doing this instead of something else? This too was irritating because he refused to accept the truthful answer which is often "because it's the easiest/funnest/coolest-looking thing"

FYI I am very extremely fond of Jonathan and respect him enormously, but boy if you stuff him in a pressure cooker with me there's gonna be some mixed feelings. He stuffed us ridiculously full of food and drink though which makes up for a lot.

In my case I am taking photos of myself, and the reason is, in part, because I am the easiest model to hire and to bully. You think Cindy Sherman didn't start out shooting herself because she was always lurking about the place? Pull the other one, of course she did.

It was only days later that I really worked out what the point was. The way I read Jonathan, what he was saying was, in fact, that you can do whatever whenever, but if you cannot eventually justify your pragmatic choices artistically then you should ditch them. If selfies aren't the right answer, then, no matter how convenient they are, I, Andrew Molitor, need to stop doing them. I am still thinking about how much I agree with that, but I accept it as an idea. Cindy Sherman doesn't have to shoot herself any more, but she still does, because it makes artistic sense for her to do so. I think she mighta shaped the art to fit, though.

Anyways, onwards. Day three was free form discussion which covered a lot of stuff like how do gallerists actually find new artists, and what about all the new ways people can get paid? (patreon, kickstarter, NFTs, etc etc.) I could report on it, but honestly, it was all minutiae. Interesting, but minutiae.

I, we, looked a lot at one another's projects. I found a great deal to like in all of them.

It struck me that most of the other students had developed a bunch of technique, and were trying to get some meaning to emerge. Many of them had some shape to the meaning, but were having trouble persuading the meaning to really gel. This is common, it's probably true that the vast majority of photographers who have grasped the idea that there even could be something like meaning then dork around with technique trying to make meaning emerge.

Yrs trly, because I am me, always do it upside down. I dork around with meaning hoping a technique will emerge.

It sounds very clever to say this, but I think it's not as clever as it sounds. If you have both technique and meaning worked out, then you're done. Congratulations. So, "project that is not done" is pretty much synonymous with "project that is weak on either technique, or meaning." The only other thing you can fuck up is connecting technique and meaning, and in a later essay I'm going to write some day, I think I'm going to argue that this might be optional.

I like to think that we, collectively, were able to say some useful things for one another. I know I got useful things said to me. Not that I will take anyone's note as stated, but many things were said that clarified things and sparked ideas, and somehow pointed me in a better direction.

There were dogs and kids. By preference, I will hang around with dogs and kids first, adults a distant second. I would like to be praised for my bravery in hanging around mostly with the adults. Not gonna lie, I spent a lot of time with the dogs, but I didn't completely blow off the adults. So, praise: go!

Coda

Re-reading the above in the cold light of day I think it's worth adding this, since I feel like the above reads a little harsh. Think of Jonathan as Mr. Miyagi. You're gonna be upset more than once, you might even get a bit mad in the moment here and there, but there's a method in play and he's probably right. It's part of the process, it's ok, it's normal, it's expected, and it works.

I wouldn't change anything, except maybe myself.


Monday, September 26, 2022

A Followup Note

Commenters have been giving me some pushback. Sssss! Fie on thee! Err, I mean, thank you!

My thought was that a photograph of something lost offers solace, comfort. Thus, having a photograph of a thing eases the path to a future without it; after all, you will still have the solace of the photo. This, I felt, might make it easier to do Modern/Progress things like moving to another city.

Upon receipt of the grossly unfair, that is to say insightful, comments, I gave this more of a think.

The trouble is that I'm not at all sure a photo does offer solace at all. Indeed, in many cases it troubles the mind, and we might be emotionally better off without the photo.

This, of course, does not mean we might not behave as if photos offer solace anyway, we might mistakenly believe that the photos will usefully stand in for the lost home, the abandoned job, the departed children. We might, despite the complication that photos actually offer, still believe in the idea that sending the children to college is easier for having photos of them to hand.

I don't really know. That photos do offer a pre-modern "return" mechanic is, I maintain, correct. What the effect of that is in the large though, I am uncertain.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

A Note on Photographs and Modernity

In my previous castles-in-the-air notes I made some vague claims about how photographs render modernity tolerable to us as human animals. After due consideration I feel it necessary to note that this is in some sense obvious.

Why is moving to a new city tolerable? Well, for many reasons, but one of them is often that at least we'll have the photos of our life in the city we're leaving. We have the photos of many things from the past, and these photos are a piece of why it's tolerable to us to leave the past behind, to move linearly into the future.

At the same time, this is not universal. There are even in America, that most modern of places, many people who do not, can not, will not, proceed into the future in the same ways that I do. Many, many people are rooted to their place, their family, their home. They remain in the cyclic, and resent the march of progress. Their grandfather worked in the mine, and their father worked in the mine, and they worked in the mine until the mine shut down. The fact that working in the mine was incomprehensibly awful in no way changes the fact that the mine getting shut down is also incomprehensibly terrible. The cycle, terrible as it was, has been broken.

I don't know if there's anything about photography specifically there.

Some time ago I read a piece that broke down people into the "somewheres" and the "anywheres." I am an anywhere, I can move, I can find a new place, anywhere. The scion of the Appalachian coal mining clan is a "somewhere" who fits only in one place, and for whatever reason cannot leave it. He votes for Trump, I vote for Biden.

Do photographs define the difference between us? Surely not. But just as surely, I live a "modern" existence, in that strict sense of linearity, or progress into a future that is different from the past. He lives a "pre-modern" life, one in which the future is expected to be, more or less, a repeat of the past.

More accurately one might say that I see a future that differs from the past as normal and generally good. Our "somewhere" sees a future that differs as a failure, as a broken system, and generally speaking bad. Both of us live with a future that is different from the past, but our attitudes differ. This is arguably the conservative versus liberal divide, phrased in personal terms.

I'd be interested to see if there were any studies about the role photography plays in the everyday lives of people of various political stripes.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Magic and Time and Photographs

A photograph, as Barthes noted, testifies to that-which-was and that is all it does. Every other effect follows from this. We see the photo, and we are assured that whatever subject we are looking at was. A photograph shows us, by this testimony, two things: first, how that-which-was is unique and special, and second how that-which-was is the same as every other instance of the subject. We tend to focus on the former, but in almost all cases, it is the latter which dominates.

There are tropes bordering on mandatory for photographing practically everything. Portraits suffer from a gradually evolving set of standards which more or less much be obeyed, not merely to avoid complaint from photographer colleagues, but because in the end your subject does not want to look special or unique. Your subject wants to look the same as everyone else does in their portrait, so you better get all five lights ready. Protests also look all the same; the function of the photojournalist's pictures is not to reveal the uniqueness of the event, but to portray it as like all the other similar events.

The Queen is dead. The pomp surrounding this event is lifted verbatim from history, and the photographs of it will be the same as for her father's funeral, slightly updated and largely in color.

Photographs serve to close the loop, to connect that-which-was with all the others, to reveal not what makes that-which-was unique, but what makes it the same. They help us to construct and maintain an abstract, Platonic, ideal of what a person looks like, what a landscape is, what protest looks like, what a flower looks like, and so on. More precisely, I suppose, every successful photograph contributes to and supports the idea of what a photograph of that thing should look like, but that's almost the same thing. Our idea of whatever-it-is is often basically a photo of it.

Let us cast our mind back, now, to Vilém Flusser. He had some ideas about image-culture versus text-culture, with the former subscribing to a kind of magical thinking in which events repeat endlessly, and the latter leaning toward a proto-modernism, a forward-only linear thinking.

Magic, generally construed, is a kind of personification of time, of the universe. At least one form of magic is built around the idea that repeating an action will cause something to occur. The dance brings rain, etc. Nobody, I suspect, thinks that the dance actually causes the rain in any meaningful way. The idea is that by repeating events that formerly came before rain, the universe can be induced to pick up the pattern and repeat itself. This does not, in fact, work for time, for fate. It works great for people, for dogs, and so on. If you sing the song, the dog jolly well turns up for its dinner, and it really does not take the dog long to learn that the song means dinner.

People, animals in general, make these associations. We constantly blur the lines between correlation and causation. The song does not cause dinner to appear, but it reliably occurs just before, and that's good enough. Magic is a attempt to bend the universe along the same paths, it treats the universe as if it were a trainable dog. See also, of course, Gods, which are a more direct personification attempt, and are closely related to magic.

People are still like this. Even if you never, ever, submit to superstition (and I suspect that would make you a rare bird indeed) you nevertheless fall into patterns dictated by society. You say the appropriate things at the appropriate times, at least some of the time. You may not be manipulating the universe through ritual, but you are observing social rituals in order to get along in society. It is a stretch to suppose that things like good manners are a way to manipulate one another, but they are certainly a means to induce repeat behaviors. Decent manners help keep our spouses coming home, and prevent us from being banned from stores we'd like to return to, and so on.

Ritual is, by definition, repeated. We have a lot of small ritual in our lives, every one of us. We live in cycles.

The photograph reifies the cycle. We don't want to look different in our portrait, we want to look the same. The same as ourselves, the same as everyone else. We want to conform, to perform the ritual, to repeat. The protest makes sense to us only as an instance of a protest, that is similar to, even identical to, all the other protests. The flower, the landscape, the cat picture, the street photograph, the football action shot, all these photographs make sense to us as repetitions of the subject.

Although we say things like "it captures her personality so well" about a portrait, the truly important thing about the picture is that it should look like every other portrait. If the lighting is weird, we notice that. If the styling is dated, we notice that. Only if the picture matches the fairly long laundry list of technical details will we notice how much it captures her personality. Indeed, when we say that, we usually don't mean that at all. It does not capture her personality and in general only looks vaguely like her, but by god it hits all the contemporary tropes and it looks like a portrait photo. So we say the only nice thing we know to say about it.

The point of the photo is not that it captures anything unique, but that it shows the subject as the same as all the other subjects. The point of the photo is to connect the subject to the abstract ideal of a photo portrait, as it "captures" everyone else in the same way.

Let us be terribly realistic for a moment: a portrait that truly revealed someone's personality in any meaningful way would be a terrifying artifact.

Perhaps we no longer seek to control the universe through cycles of ritual, but we certainly make sense of it thus.

This does rather invite the question of how culture was prior to the photograph.

Obviously, um, different.

Mcluhan might chime in about now and remark that a culture that photographs is different from a culture that does not. It occurs to me that prior to the photograph, culture legitimately was more cyclical. For many people, the cycles of the day, the week, and the year were all there was; in modern society, for many of us, every year brings new and unprecedented events. Modernity is in its essence the idea that change and "progress" are normal, expected. We expect to get pay rises, to eventually move into a better home, own a better car, drink more expensive whiskey. We expect to travel, to relocate, to make new friends and lose old ones. It's normal.

Perhaps the photograph as a cultural phenomenon encourages this? Or compensates for it? Or perhaps a bit of both?

It might not be completely crazy to say that modernity would not look quite this way, without the photograph to reify the cycles that we lost along the way.

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Here's a Thing

Here we have a kickstarter for a book about teen obesity, focusing on (to some degree I cannot fully discern) a single subject named Shannon. The photographer, Abbie Trayler-Smith, started working with Shannon when the latter was 15 years old, and I think we may freely assume that at least some photos of underage Shannon appear in the book. In addition, it seems that quite a few sexualized photos of Shannon (presumably no longer underage, let us hope the records are in order) appear.

This book is getting a certain amount of support from what we might describe as "the usual suspects" on social media. This same group is rather fond of pointing out exploitative projects in which, say, underage girls in Africa are photographed for one reason of another. These photos are invariably "bad" because they're exploitative, not empathetic, and so on. There is a whole litany, repeated in chorus at appropriate intervals.

While I may quibble about the details of the litany, to do so is not my intention today. Let us stipulate that the litany is spot on in every detail, for the moment.

The point I want to make here is that every accusation leveled at the Bad Photos can also be leveled at Kiss It!

A common refrain we hear is that "these photos" would never be taken of white people. As Kiss It! illustrates (but see also, for example, Mary Ellen Mark's photos of Erin Blackwell, "Tiny") this isn't really true. You could argue that Kiss It! is built around, perhaps, an empathy with the subject that's not present in the colonial, bad, pictures. This is, I think, a difficult row to hoe, and frankly I think to make that argument would be to project onto the pictures things that are simply not visible, not present.

What is, I think, actually going on is much more nefarious.

When we see the pictures of Shannon, whatever else we see we tend to imagine a kind of agency. Shannon, we feel, is capable of meaningful consent in a way that a Black girl, especially a Black girl in Africa is not. You could substitute in a girl in Guatemala, or New Guinea, with the same effect.

We are, it turns out, much more willing to accept a narrative of "incapable of meaningful consent, and therefore probably exploited" when we see a picture of someone in the Global South, and we are much more willing to accept a narrative of "sufficiently sophisticated and aware of contemporary media culture to give valid, meaningful, consent" when we see a person apparently from the "global north" especially if they are white.

I don't mean to particularly point an accusing finger. I feel it too.

Indeed, there is an argument to be made that people from the global south, as a category, genuinely do have less agency. Poverty, for instance, might well have pushed someone into being photographed when they might otherwise have preferred not to be. People in the global south are indeed more likely to be impoverished, it's part of the definition. There is a necessarily probabilistic argument you can make here. But, it's an argument about likelihoods, not specific cases.

People like Shannon can also be poor, and people in Africa have cell phones and instagram accounts. You can't just make blanket statements. If the photographer says they worked closely, collaboratively, with their subjects and and otherwise checked all the boxes, it's not right to simply say "lol, liar" simply because the photos were made in Thailand. Photographers can absolutely parachute in to a place in the USA, take a bunch of shitty titty shots, and pretend that it's anthropology. Exploitation, as well as its opposite, can in fact take place anywhere.

I don't think that the subject's skin color is a particularly reliable indicator of the degree of exploitation in play, although it might loosely correlate.

I'm not super happy about the Kiss It! project. It strikes me as exploitative. It's hitting a fairly chic topic, in a fairly chic way. There's a depressing amount of the "let's photograph her naked, because that's empowering" trope. It strikes me as essentially too obvious to be taken very seriously. Trayler-Smith wants to "challenge what it means to be fat" which is either a meaningless artspeak noise, or, if it means anything at all she merely wants to remind us that obese people are people. Does this obvious fact bear repeating? I suppose?

I'm sure Abbie and Shannon are indeed friends, and that it's very lovely, but at the end of the day Abbie wants to take a bunch of photos of her friend and boost her own career with them. She wants to turn Shannon's life, specifically the hard parts of that life, and turn that into grist for a "Abbie is a Very Serious Photographer" narrative. Trayler-Smith wants not merely to say "fat people are people too" she wants to get a cookie for repeating this well-established and oft-repeated refrain. While it may bear repeating, I don't see why Trayler-Smith ought to earn a cookie for doing so.

Maybe the book will be great, I dunno. It doesn't look too great to me. It looks dated, shallow, and try-hard.

Monday, September 5, 2022

Art and AI, Part II

I wrote about this a while ago, which ramblings you may read here. I may have gotten slightly sidetracked into making fun of how far "AI research" is from what many people seem to imagine its end goal is, in that piece. Let's take a more art-centric tack, to oppose the AI-centric one.

Some AI generated art piece won a ribbon at a state fair somewhere, recently. It is, obviously, a ridiculous, twee, mess, because that's the sort of thing that wins ribbons at these things. Be that as it may, it is certainly true that this category of AI engines will shortly, if they do not already, generate things that are not particularly twee.

So what?

I promised art-centristry, so here we go. I maintain that art is defined not by how it is made, or what it is made of, but by what it does. It strikes us. It at least has the capacity to enlarge us. But more than that, it means.

A mountain strikes us, enlarges us, but it would be silly to categorize it as Art simply as it stands there. It does not mean in the sense that we generally consider Art to. It does not stand for anything, it is not a symbol, it carries no message and can carry no message (unless, perhaps, from God, in which case everything is Art and the word dissolves into nothing, so let us set that aside.) A mountain, sublime as it may be, represents only itself. Art strikes us, and we believe in some kind of intention in that strike. We believe in the author and we wonder at the author's intent, no matter how vigorously we would cleave to a deconstructionist theory.

This can be broken down further, and indeed we have seen it broken down. The idea that an object might have semiotics, that it might indicate something other than itself, that it might symbolize, is separate from the idea that this meaning is intentional, that it is authored.

The Dada artists did some experiments with automatic drawing, automatic writing, that kind of thing. Others have used randomness, or mechanical means, to make paintings or whatever. These things can symbolize, they can have a semiotics in a way that a mountain does not.

Indeed, you could argue that the automatic drawings acquire meaning in exactly the way that a photograph of a mountain does, in the process of selecting which one to keep and which ones to discard.

If, as I believe, photography is not really an act of creation, but one of selection, then perhaps both automatic drawing and AI generated art are essentially the same as photography. The details of the construction of the thing itself are left up to chance, or the machine; while guidance is applied beforehand, and selection afterwards. Perhaps that is enough?

Will the AI replace the photographer? It might. Will I be able to pump in 3 phone snaps of myself and say "make me a powerful and moving portrait with a key light, a fill light, a hair light, a kicker, and a pink gelled background that also depicts me with a warm and authentic smile as if I am looking not at a camera but at you" and have it do that? Maybe. Probably? Sad for photographers, I guess, but jobs go obsolete, it's a thing. There will probably be a gradually shrinking pool of cases in which the explicit control of actually taking the picture will be worth the extra effort of actually taking the picture.

Of course, there will also always be room for someone to take photos of actual things that actually happen, as records, as documents of the thing, of the event. Perhaps all those photos will be run through the AI to pretty 'em up before we ever see them.

Probably a market for raw material for the mill (see "phone snaps" in the portrait example.)

I do not believe that the photograph as itself will carry any substantive cultural weight. I have given up on the idea that somehow the actual realness of the frame is what matters to ordinary people; what matters is that it looks real, not that it is real, and the machines can certainly make it look real.

Is it art? Sure it's art. It's as art as a photo, as art as an automatic or random drawing. Better than the last two, it tends to actually look like something, so it's not a largely theoretical footnote in art history. It looks like something, and it can mean in the approriate way. What's not to like?

Thursday, September 1, 2022

The Single Use Photo

In what follows I will sound, I am fully aware, exactly like a grumpy old man shouting at clouds. Be that as it may.

Back in the Good Olde Dayes, say, the 1990s, we mostly walked around with, at most, 36 exposures at our beck and call. More if we wanted to fiddle around changing film. We tended to gravitate toward pictures with some weight, whether memorializing something or trying to make a picture somehow "worth printing." We might take a bunch of crummy snaps of Christmas, but because it was Christmas, because it was a memory we wanted to preserve. We might take a bunch of pictures of the crane silhoutted against the sky, but generally with the idea that one of these frames might be a wall-hanger or that at least we were developing skills aimed at some day taking a wall-hanger.

The advent of digital photography made it free to press the button, and the advent of social media created a whole new category of venue for our photos. No longer did they have to have gravitas, no more did they need to be wall-hangers. They could just be pretty, or witty, or fun. Go nuts, take a 100 of them.

Of course, in the old days, we took these things too. Less of them, I think, and we threw them away because there wasn't anything to be done with them. Oh look, a pretty flower. Oh look, a funny sign, or a sign made funny by the guy with the hat standing in front of it. They're not wall-hangers, they're a new kind of consumable, intended to be looked at one (1) time only. They're single-use photos.

"Street photography" is maybe where this is most visible. Compare Robert Frank's book with the stuff we see today. Every frame of Frank's is loaded with meaning, with symbols, with structure. He's trying to communicate something. Most of modern street photography is making a throwaway joke, or noting a momentarily interesting juxtaposition of stuff. Yeah, yeah, there's all sorts of material about a story, but that's BS. The point is that the triangular shadow is pointing at the guy, wow, or that we have strong foreground elements framing a background element, or the complete stranger is doing a funny thing. These are are "lol, next" single-use photos.

The Guardian's "LensCulture street photography awards" are pretty much all of this sort. These are mostly photos nobody would have circled on the contact sheet, but since we've been mired in a photographic culture built around "lol, next" photos, this is now an actual style, a genre, that gets awards. Look at how many of these things are literally "someone's head is covered up by a foreground object, lol."

We see the same phenomenon on random social media, as well. I won't name names, but this morning I ran across a photo, a perfectly pleasing "pretty" picture of nothing, that someone posted to social media. He will never print it, it's very much a "look once, and never again" photo, although it's perfectly pleasant to look at once. Some rando made a negative comment, which is neither here nor there, and then of course the original poster's friends jumped all over extolling the virtues of this essentially throwaway picture. A tale as old as time, if we take "time" as beginning about 2010.

I'm not even arguing that this is a bad thing, it is what it is. The point is, it's a new thing. The idea of the throwaway picture, the "hey, look at this, cool huh?" "yeah, cool" photo, the single-use photo, is by far the dominant idiom. It is what photographers aspire to learn to do. There are millions of hours of youtube videos that teach you how to do this. It mostly didn't exist before 2010.

I have this vague notion that I wrote something like this a long long time ago, the idea of a photo as an artifact that says no more than "look at this?" but I can't find it.

Monday, August 29, 2022

A Wedding

We wrapped up the mayhem that is Summer Holiday with a wedding in Portland, OR. L and C, a pair of beautiful brides, got married in stunning style in a series of events over three days. Replacing the mook in the tux with a second bride is genius, it just looks way way better. We attended all of it, and enjoyed the hell out of every second. C is not, as I understand it, deaf herself, but is a part of the deaf community. CORRECTION: C identifies as deaf, and while she has some degree of hearing, it is partial. There are probably technical terms that would define this precisely, I decline to demonstrate my ignorance. Thus, there was a lot of ASL in play, which was humbling for a non-speaker like me in all the best ways. Also, lesbian weddings appear to be an unbroken wall of incredibly hot women, but I felt somehow that they were mostly long-shots, and also my wife was there; I stuck to the canapés.

None of this has anything to do with my point here. What does matter is that L has a remarkable smile. One of those 1000 watt smiles. L was visibly nervous and tense, so it was always a pleasure when the smile popped out. (C is getting short shrift here, but L is my wife's friend, so there.)

After the ceremony the brides were being flogged through the intense gamut of Mandatory Photographs, off to one side, while the rest of us sat around drinking and eating and talking. I won't accuse anyone else, but if you wanted to compare me to some exquisitely self-satisfied farm animal, I would unable to mount a credible rebuttal. Since I am me, though, I noticed the photographic suffering going on over there.

For each grouping, L turned on the smile, BAM. Snap. Then the smile faded quickly and she was back to marshalling the next grouping, and then the smile, and Snap, and so on.

I would never accuse L of a false smile. I am certain that for each photo she took a breath, and found that happy place, that joy in the moment, and brought it out for the camera, for the photo. Nevertheless, that smile has the character of a pose. Of course, everyone else was posing at least as much, but I wasn't looking at them. I'm looking at the brides, duh.

Ok, so what?

Well, later on, having observed L's extremely poised camera pose, I noticed her with her wife, notably, but also with other friends, every now and then having a moment even in the stress and madness of a gigantic wedding. The smile would come out again. Subtly but palpably different. I tried to quantify what was different, but it's not obvious. Something about the eyes. I think she lets her eyes close a little when there's no camera.

That was special. The same 1000 watts, maybe 1100, but without the pose. Powered entirely by joy. Again, it's not a difference between "false" and "genuine" at all, it's just the context, the intent, the moment. Posing for the camera is one thing, and being in the calming presence of your loved ones is another. I'll unbend enough to propose that the latter is somehow warmer.

Long time readers, at least the attentive ones, will notice that this is a difference I harp on constantly, the difference between the pose, "camera face," and this other thing, this warmer, emotion-powered thing that somehow sidesteps the camera. The the difference between a good portrait and a great one is when that warmer non-pose is directed, somehow, at the camera. The sitter sees "you" rather than the lens, the sitter feels seen rather than observed.

To pose for the camera, to "act" in some sense (although the act may be a performance of some truth), but to not act for the close friend, for the loved one, is thoroughly natual to us. We do it automatically, without thought, and indeed to do otherwise borders on the impossible. The point of the great portraitist, of the great portrait, is that the sitter is "natural" in front of the lens, despite awareness of the lens.

It's a subtle distinction, and unless you see it side-by-side, you might never notice the difference. Nevertheless, it's real, and we humans as, essentially, face-reading machines with stomachs, notice it instantly in the right circumstances. The meaning of the two postures is quite different, and getting that committed to a photograph is quite a trick.

Also, it was extremely fun to watch, and very warming to the soul. I have high hopes for C and L, and wish them the very very very best. Plus, they throw a hell of a party, omg. So good.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

It's All Contingent

It is, I think, an established fact or at least truism among professional pollsters that you can draw pretty much any desired answer to any specific question, if you precede the question with other questions crafted in the right way. Want to prove that The Voters support Tough On Crime measures? Or the reverse? Craft your sequence of questions appropriately.

At the same time, in this century, we have philosophers who are fond of posing questions about whether one would, or would not, save the baby under this circumstance or that.

The essential feature of a philosophy, or or a system of ethics, is that it should reliably produce the same answer repeatedly, when confronted with the same problem, repeatedly.

This isn't how people work, at all, so in a large sense this sort of thing is an utterly bankrupt procedure. I have become convinced that our actions, our ideas of right and wrong, and all our more nuanced judgements, are highly contingent. They depend upon the sequence of questions leading up to the question of interest. Our entire sense of society is built around weirdly arbitrary not-even-rules like "is the baby nearby, or on another continent?" and "am I related to the baby?" and "do I know the baby's parents?" and so on, to say nothing of "I got paid yesterday" versus "I don't get paid for another three weeks" and also the weather and phase of the moon and how pleasant the clerk was just now.

You could probably make some evolutionary argument, to the effect that we human apes are always optimizing for local something-or-other and as such all decisions are made in the context of a gestalt where-are-we-now. But it doesn't matter where it comes from or why, what matters to me here and now is that this seems to be the way we work. We arrive at conclusion A here and now, and presented with what is apparently an identical problem save perhaps for some trivial details tomorrow, we arrive at precisely the opposite conclusion, not A. This is normal, this is human. Our ideas of ethics, of philosophy, of meaning, being built on the idea of repeatability, are bankrupt and wrong in human terms.

When we come upon a scene in the real world, our reaction to it, our understanding of it, is contingent in the same way. I come across a group of homeless people in the park, and because I am a good liberal I am sympathetic to their plight and mentally cut them some slack. Except when I don't. Sometimes I long to horsewhip their filthy littering asses out of my park and down to the Mission to clean up and dry out and get a goddamned job. I am the same person. The situation is the same. But the gestalt where-am-I-now is always in flux, and as such, my reaction varies.

Insofar as we react to a photograph as-if it were the real world, our reaction to is it necessarily contingent in the same way and for the same reasons.

In general it seems reasonable that the more powerfully the hand of the author can assert itself in a work of art, the less contingent the meaning is likely to be. In this case I refer to the "meaning" that some normie will make of it, not some scholarly interpretation. So, a movie or a novel is likely to be understood in relative terms in a less contingent way than a painting, which in turn is (generally, relatively) understood in a less contingent way than a photograph, which itself falls to the contingency with which we understand the world as a whole.

There are, I think, two quite separate factors here. The first is that a heavy-handed author leaves less room for interpretation. In the limiting case all you can do is accept or reject the conclusion. The second factor is that preparation of the viewer business that pollsters know about. You can, at least in theory, warm the viewer up to your ideas. In this latter case, the Art or whatever is the whole thing, all the context, the text, the pictures, whatever, and the viewer is assumed to bringing whatever they are today to it. But the Art as a whole can in theory modify the condition of who-you-are to a degree and bring out some kind of reaction which is.. I don't even know. Is it better or worse? It's probably different, and maybe more profound? If the purpose of Art is to affect the viewer rather than to simply lecture, I guess the idea of changing the who-are-you-now gestalt is desireable.

A photograph more or less by itself, especially a documentary-styled photograph, lies fairly far on the contingent end of things. We're likely to make sense of it based on who we are, but more than that, on who we are at this moment. You as the artist can try to shape the experience, or to nail down the meaning, but the photo itself is elusive.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

In The Forest



In the forest we find these things at least: plants comprising trees, shrubs, bushes, ferns, mosses, and sundry smaller plants; fungi of the toadstool sort and of the shelving sort and of the spreading sort and of the sort made of invisible threads meshed through and through the fallen leaves and earth and roots; and animals; bugs that fly and bugs that crawl and bugs that dig and bugs that do all of them; and animals with scales and animals with fur and small animals that scurry and climb and animals that slink and hide and animals that lumber and decline to hide although even they are often shy and animals with wings and feathers that flit or soar and that sit on twigs, on branches and others that cling to the side of the tree with skewed toes and some that hop on the earth below. I suppose there are also algaes and lichens down among the fungi and painted peeling on rocks and trees and anything else that holds still enough.

It is the trees, though, that we see. Hanging from the sky with roots gently brushing the earth grasping at the earth dangling from the clouds trees infinitely long to us below who gape up from the ground they seem barely to touch, although we know really that there is as much tree underneath as there is tree above.

This is what we see. What we hear, mostly, but mostly do not see are animals. Chitter. Chirp. A scurrying rustle and cry of alarm or of rage and the whomp of wing stirring the air and the rattle of a beetle and on and on. Left to their own devices, the trees would make no sound at all except, rarely, the crunching crashing bang of a falling branch or stem grown too far for too long and succumbing finally to the infinite patience of gravity. The movement of air encroaches from time to time, fluttering leaf on leaf, creaking limb on limb here and groaning trunk there but otherwise, the trees in even a small forest a thousand thousand tons of fiber and living tissue go about the business of living in complete silence. The umwelt of the tree is empty of the animal kingdom, contains nothing of humanity perceived if at all as instantaneous incomprehensible violence no more experienced than we experience quantum mechanics, a violence that kills in the interval between two moments or which leaves a wound that heals slowly. The trees get on with the business of living, of starving the other plants of light and water and life, of murder and of symbiosis all at a pace no more perceptible to us than the axe to the tree.

The enormous indifferent mass of trees from sky to earth muffles sound with the mass of wood, of leaves, and the mass and volume of air enclosed within the trees pinned to the clouds swallows up the chattering and scuffling and rattling of rootless mobile life, renders the sounds soft and distant. The largest groves the eldest the tallest, lift the sounds up and away into the distant canopy leaving almost nothing but silence behind a silence we sometimes pretend to in our largest cathedrals our most ancient and holy dwellings.

The forest, like the sea, is indifferent. We interpret with desperate hope with overweening optimism this indifference as a kind of sacred benevolence, hoping that the trees individually and the forest collectively will somehow bless us and make us fruitful or at any rate successful or if not that at least not dead too soon. It is no accident that some of our earliest gods are the gods of forest and of sea of the vast indifferent forces in and around which we first scrambled out a small living for a moment or two but our gods never perceived us. Our first gods ever so concrete and real and touchable lacked the ability even to notice us to notice our deference our supplication our placatory attempts to weasel out some little favor for ourself or perhaps a similarly short-lived and suspiciously hairless ape which we happened to love for reasons the trees would never, if we could somehow make them see it, understand.

And so it is that we perceive the forest as both sacred and terrifying and eventually also and at the same time mundane. The forest is indifferent and vast and we are imperceptible to it. We are free to worship or to flee or to gather mushrooms for our dinner, and perhaps we will be killed and perhaps eaten by some creature larger and even more violent than ourselves and the forest will not care or even notice. Most likely, though, the mushrooms will be excellent.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Language, Photography, Cinema, and Gaze

Not too long ago I had the opportunity to revisit the idea that "photography is a language" which it is not. I thought about it some more.

Cinema is a language. At the very least, the way movies are usually made is to assemble the pieces according to a fairly well defined, teachable, system that is very linguistic in character even if it perhaps falls short of some specific definition of "language." The linguistic part isn't the part with the camera, though, it's the part that comes afterwards where the output of the camera is cut together into a movie.

A clip of an actor speaking a line of dialog enjoys much of the same ambiguity a still photograph does. The clip spans time, giving you a taste of before/after in ways that a still does not, but it is nevertheless free floating. Cut that clip together with another actor speaking a response, and make sure the faces are looking in opposite directions, and that eye-lines match, and so on, and abruptly the meaning of the clip is much more nailed down. The character is in conversation with the other character. Continue in the same way for long enough, and you have a movie in which a story is told, relationships are revealed, and so on. Much of that meaning can be imposed after shooting is completed. In extreme cases all the meaning is imposed in the edit.

When we speak of cinema, we speak of these completed objects. These are finished statements, written in a language, which nail down by the use of that language much of the meaning we might make of the film. This is the point of the language of cinema editing. This is why a language has been devised to do this work: because film makers want to nail down the meaning, they want to say coherent, specific, unambiguous things. He said this to her, she shot him in the forehead, and then left through the glass doors, feeling upset and angry. Not everything is nailed down, of course, nothing ever is. But the point is that there is much that is nailed down.

We tend to think of a photograph at least mostly as if it were outside of any context, as free floating. We treat photographs in roughly the way we would think about a single clip of film, before it is edited into a movie.

This is important: It is tempting to apply theory and ideas from cinema to photographs, because they are in some sense the same medium. This is invariably a very bad idea. Film theory applies almost exclusively to the finished product. It is a theory about objects which are linguistic in character, about objects that say things intended by an author (pace Barthes.) Film theory is, if anything, about the ways authors can say things with film, about the ways they cannot say things, about the ways the things the film says are or are not what the author intended.

Photographs are not like that. They are non-linguistic, and most of the meaning we make of a photograph does not arise from the author's intention but rather from what we imagine the author's intentions to have been. There are signs and symbols in a photograph, but for the most part these are not organized into a sentence-like structure which carries meaning. The signs and symbols in a photograph simply are, radiating their ambiguous meanings. The distinction here is something like the difference between literary criticism and etymology.

You can, of course, edit photographs in a way that is analogous to the way we edit movies. This is referred to in modern parlance as "sequencing" and there is no coherent, teachable, school of how that should be done. Advice on sequencing invariably comes out to "print them all out and stick them up where you can look at them. Then shuffle them around until you want to die." You know you're done when you know you're done, objective criteria, or even shared criteria, for done-ness would be considered gauche and a violation of the artist's true expression. You can, of course, apply cinematic methods and produce a sort of stupid "movie" but mostly this isn't what you do. Sequencing, anyway, is largely an art-school affectation with 1000 different flavors, and is thoroughly divorced from photography as a cultural force, as a cultural phenomenon.

The idea of male gaze comes out of the theory of cinema. It is the notion that women and men are commonly presented differently in movies. The women are victims, passive, sexually available, and so on. The men are active, heroic, and so on. You observe these things at the level of "text" in a movie. You can "close read" by counting lines of dialog, you can measure screen time, and so on. You can look narrative structures, etcetera and so forth. You can probably re-task all the techniques of literary analysis to a movie to demonstrate this point, and you discover something real. "Male gaze" is an actual thing in movies.

You cannot meaningfully apply these methods to a photograph, or really even a grouping of photographs.

Re-tasking "gaze" to still photographs is essentially nonsensical. It's like applying differential calculus to dogs. This is why we've ended up with a theory of photographic gaze that is impossible to explain, you can "just see it" and if you can't you "need to do the reading," except that it invariably is just a proxy for the identity of the photographer and how much the critic likes them.

It is notable that Mulvey's original formulation of "male gaze" makes it clear that women can and often do make movies in which "male gaze" is a phenomenon. "Gaze" in Mulvey's formulation, is a well-defined property of a movie, which exists independent of the identity of whoever made the movie. You can basically fill out a spreadsheet for a movie and see how much "male gaze" is in it. You cannot say any of this for the corresponding photographic concept, because the latter is a mess, and it's a mess because "gaze" is an attempt to apply a quasi-literary concept to a medium that isn't even linguistic, let alone literary.

In general, any attempt to apply cinematic theory to still photographs is as doomed as an effort to apply literary criticism to etymological problems, and for exactly the same reasons.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Something To Look At

Let's take a look at this photo.

We see a man, older and running to fat. He's running his hand through his own hair, which appears greasy and unfashionably long. He is ill-shaven, and has bad skin, whether from age or from injury is unclear. His hair is grey, his ears have the characteristic enlargement of an old man's, the backs of his hands are a forest of hair. Indeed, this is a very very hairy dude, his ears are hairy, his hands are hairy, and it seems likely that someone's making him maintain his eyebrows and use a nose-hair trimmer, even if they can't get him to groom anything else.

His eyes are closed, his head leans toward the hand, as if for support. His lips appear pursed, perhaps vaguely suggestive of some inner turmoil, but see below. Behind him, some kind of signage which, despite being legible, seems to have been expertly cropped to prevent us guessing at any of the words.

His clothing, insofar as we can see it, is as they say a study in contrasts. The neckline suggests a T-shirt, and there's something of a profusion of collars going on. Over whatever that is, he is clearly wearing some more dressy jacket sporting 4 decorative buttons at the cuff. The sleeve of a shirt protrudes from the jacket cuff. Is he wearing a long sleeved T-shirt? The jacket itself, while clearly leaning toward dressy (buttons) seems also a trifle frayed. The apparent fraying is probably emphasized, if not entirely created, by the strong, harsh, lighting. On the clothes, see below.

The lighting is harsh, somewhat low, and very directional. This feels like headlights, or a simulation of headlights. I don't see any twinning of shadows, so possibly it's just an unmodified flash held low and to the photographer's left. The effect, though, is very harsh, revealing to the point of a kind of nakedness. This is very much a WeeGee vibe.

I think we can comfortably read this as a tired man, perhaps even a beaten man, pinned down under harsh light, revealed and trapped in a moment of weakness. He seems to be neither embracing the camera nor rejecting it, but oblivious to it. The camera feels quite close, though, so the sense we get is not that the subject hasn't noticed, but rather that he doesn't care. Possibly, he is acting as-if he doesn't care, an interpretation which suggests that the act might extend further.

The subject is Steve Bannon, photographed after having been found guilty of lying to Congress. He was photographed by Mark Peterson, who also shot a photo of some cops that I talked about.

Bannon's lips are in fact simply very thin (or possibly he keeps them always pursed) so any impression from the set of his lips is probably a chimera. The chaos of collars and jacket is standard Bannon fare, he is known for wearing at least three shirts at all time. Further, the ill-shaven face is another Bannon tic, something like Boris Johnson's perma-rumpled hair — most likely some dumb but successful attempt to appeal to Regular Guys (Bannon, like all these assholes, is a multi-millionaire.)

What does not appear, at least to my eye, is any judgement on the man.

I am in judgement of Steve Bannon, who I consider to be a worm, and a very bad person. I am glad he was convicted of something, although I think that lying to Congress ought to be mandatory rather than illegal. I mean, seriously, what a bunch of doltish scoundrels. Why would anyone sully the truth by uttering it in those chambers? But anyways, Bannon guilty yay I guess.

If you're a Bannon fan, though, I think you might find much to sympathize with here. This is an intimate photo of a man who's taken a pretty severe blow. There's something of a boxing photo in here, I think, and this is, somehow, the fighter who got the worst of the bout. However, to acknowledge and to reveal the loss is not to judge. There is a strong flavor of pathos here.

If we imagine he might be acting, as noted above, it becomes reasonable to speculate that he's playing to his fans, milking them for sympathy with a routine of discouragement. The pose is, indeed, reminiscent of a drama queen with the back of her hand to her forehead, gasping about her vapors for sympathy. It's not at all clear that this is what's going on, and in fact I am fairly convinced of the genuineness of Bannon's emotions here.

I am glad he lost, and I take genuine pleasure in the loss revealed by this picture. That pleasure, and the source of that pleasure, is in me. I dare say many of my readers will also take the same pleasure, for the same reasons, but I defy you to find the judgement you feel anywhere in the blobs of tone which make up this picture.

You are judging, not the picture.

Saturday, July 23, 2022

I ATE'NT DEAD

I'm on holiday for a little bit and my well has temporarily (I assume) run a bit dry. I'll at least take a close look at a recent photo by Mark Peterson (he of the Triumph of the Will/NYPD at Rockefeller Plaza a few months ago) which should be fun. When I stop holidaying.

I also have had an idea for a new set of photos, with which I will be torturing you shortly, I think. Be well, try not to die.

Friday, July 8, 2022

View Camera Howler, James Curtis

Ooops, I forgot a diagram earlier. The remarks on house layout below should make more sense now.

I am, for reasons, re-reading James Curtis' book Mind's Eye, Mind's Truth in which Curtis says a remarkable amount of unsupported stuff about Walker Evans, and ran across this gem regarding a photo which appears in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men of an interior shot of the Gudger (Burroughs) house:

He [Evans] began by taking some 35mm. shots from the from the kitchen doorway, looking into the room, but soon discovered that from this point of view he would have a difficult time controlling the light with his view camera. He solved the problem by using the special technical features of his equipment. He set up his tripod in the doorway directly opposite the kitchen door. From that vantage point, he could record the washstand on the outside kitchen wall, and the interior of the kitchen itself. By sliding the front of his camera sideways, he could look directly into the kitchen without having the kitchen window in his picture. In short, he moved the entire scene off center to avoid inclusion of an unwanted light source in his photograph.

At this point we're a little bit "huh?" so let's look at the picture now:


I have to admit I am not seeing any obvious front-standard movements here, it's just a camera placed in a doorway (you can see the doorframe of the near doorway as a white vertical plank on the left edge) looking across a hall through another doorway. You can see that there is a window in the other room, probably about on the right edge of the frame, concealed behind a clapboard wall.

A front-standard slide could have provided this view with the clapboard and so on all squared up, by pointing the camera directly across the breezeway for squareness, and then sliding, but Evans has not done that here, none of the boards are square to the frame.

This is just a guy standing in the right spot with a camera.

Curtis goes on. At this point it should be noted that James Agee, who described this house, does in fact place the doorway Evans is standing in directly opposite the kitchen doorway.

... Evans's manipulations distort the architectural design of the Burroughs house. On several occasions, Agee commented on the placement of doorways, noting that those opening onto the breezeway were located opposite one another.

But Curtis is just wrong here, and Agee is too. A view camera movement cannot make two doorways directly aligned appear misaligned in this way, it's simply not a thing. The doorways are not aligned.

A closer reading of the text Agee wrote would have in fact thrown this claim of alignment into question anyways, Agee's description of the layout of the house is inconsistent, and if you're attentive to his placement of the doors as he describes each room you see quickly that they cannot in fact be opposite one another. Each is more or less centered in its wall, but one wall is 12 feet or so long and the other more like 7 feet.

The actual layout of the house is something like this, with two 12x12 foot bedrooms on the left side of the hallway/breezeway (it is open to the world at both ends), a 12x12 storeroom on the right with a 12x7 (or thereabouts, Agee says it's "about half the size") attached behind the storeroom. Evans is standing more or less at the red dot, and he had his camera pointed this. The offending window is at the blue dot.

This layout and the misalignment of the doors is confirmed by various other photos which I think Curtis had access to. He refers often to a catalog that allegedly contains all the FSA photos by Evans. The modern online catalog might, however, be more complete, I have not examined the book Curtis cites. See this rear view of the house, though:

We can see the breezeway, and a doorway under the shed-roof over the end of the breezeway. This is the doorway Evans set his camera in, and you can see that it's pretty close to lined up with the rear wall of the kitchen (the smaller room). You can see a pail on the washstand which is against the kitchen wall in the breezeway. Wherever the kitchen door is, it cannot directly face the bedroom door, because that latter directly faces the washstand.

In any case, the idea that somehow Evans distorted the house layout with camera movements is simply bonkers.

(I think? I mean, can you think of some way the two doorways actually could be squarely facing one another, and yet that picture be produced with creative camera movement?)

Curtis seems to me, for this and other reasons, to have been thoroughly unqualified to perform the kinds of detailed analysis his book is based on. Which is kind of sad.