Monday, December 26, 2022

Of AIs and wordwooze

There have been many novels and stories written about machines for writing things, but the one that sticks in my head is Lieber's The Silver Eggheads and even about this one I recall very little detail. Fiction writing has been, in the future of this book, taken over by machines, wordmills, which grind out wordwooze. The latter is easily consumable, mostly the same, repetitive, "bad" writing that has pushed all the "real" writers out of work because it is so cheap to make, and good enough for the general public.

It may be that we'll see real wordmills shortly, although I confess that I am dubious. I feel as if the current generation of AI technology is about to tap out, and will prove structurally incapable of producing more than a few thousand words in a row that hang together even loosely. Be that as it may.

I want to talk a little about a pair of essays I read recently. The first is Rebecca Solnit's "The Blue of Distance" (which is also the title and lead essay of a book of the same name) and the second is Freddie deBoer's more recent "Up You Go" published on his substack. A quick google around will get you to copies of both essays.

If you squint, they're kind of similar. Pretty short, easy to read. Easy-reading language, quick to consume, pleasing sentence follows pleasing sentence and so on. They open with some fairly random observations and facts, while the second act is built around a personal anecdote, and they wrap up with a glib, summarizing, observation. They are, I maintain, different, in ways that are hinted at in my opening remarks above, and in ways that I think are important.

Solnit is a good writer, she can craft sentences and paragraphs. She can also do research, and wrote a pretty good bio of Muybridge that only contained a couple of technical fumbles. She embodies the modern era's someone whose expertise is in writing rather than in any specific subject matter, but with just enough chops to write pretty broadly. deBoer is pretty much equally skilled with language, but sticks a bit closer to home. He writes about things that he actually has pretty deep domain knowledge on, or essentially about himself and his emotional life ("Up You Go" is one of the latter.)

I don't much like Solnit. She seems to be to embody the young man described by, I think, Orwell who told his mother he intended to write. When she asked what he intended to write about the young man explained to his mother that in these times one doesn't write about anything, one simply writes. This is an attitude that I detest. It comes out of a desire to equate a usually overblown ability to push words around with actually knowing things. Solnit's bio of Muybridge is well written, and well researched, but it becomes clear that she is interested in certain things about Muybridge, but not at all interested in other things. Indeed, she's pretty vague on a lot of relevant material. Solnit is no anorak, and even her not-very technical writing tends to rub right up against the edge of the knowledge she's researched-up. She's not as disinterested as the young man, but she's not really engaged, either.

I do like deBoer, who is a troubled man, and who has been far more troubled in the past. He writes with real integrity, and is nothing like the young man in Orwell's anecdote.

In Solnit's essay, she talks for a while about how painters use blue to indicate distance, salting in facts like peanuts in a candy bar, and then wanders into a story of walking across the dry lakebed of the Great Salt Lake in Utah in a drought year. She's trying to walk to Antelope Island, and isn't able to because, eventually, she finds the much-reduced lake. The only actual idea she proposes is that, perhaps, the state of desiring (or of desiring something) is itself a condition we might aspire to. Then she just sort of drops it and moves on. The essay is what I have heard characterized as "that New Yorker shit," it has no beginning, no end, you can start anywhere, it doesn't matter. Each sentence is beautifully made to follow the previous one and flow into the next one, but that's about it.

deBoer's essay starts in with some personal observations about aging, and about how he's taller than average but not actually that big of a guy, and then goes into a personal anecdote about attending an emo-concert, and hoisting a bunch of small emo kids up, so they can go crowd surfing, and it ends with some glib words about feeling good. Each sentence is well made, the flow is good, just like Solnit's writing.

The difference between the two is that deBoer's essay is firmly nailed to reality. If his anecdote was revealed to be untrue, or to be someone else's story retasked, or whatever, it would destroy the essay. If Solnit's trek across the Great Salt Lake was revealed to be somehow invented it would not matter in the slightest. It's shaped as a kind of allegorical journey anyway, although what it's an allegory for is elided.

To my eye, deBoer's essay is rooted in reality, it emerges organically from real things that really happened, which deBoer wants to tell us about, which deBoer learned some things from. He wants to tell us about these life events and what they mean to him, how they shaped him. Solnit wants to captivate the reader, and to hit a word count; her essay is 3004 words long. Worse, she wants to captivate a specific reader, someone who is themselves essentially divorced from reality. She wants to talk to people who have never painted a picture (her discussion of Facts About Painting is trivial to the point of dumb even to anyone who has even dabbled) and who have never across a dry lakebed.

Solnit's writing is of a character that is, if not dominant, certainly very popular. It especially has traction with the unserious but wanna-bee erudite people, the kinds of people who share links to New Yorker articles about minimalism. It's not postmodern, not really, it has none of the fuck-you tics of that style, it's a kind of post-post-modern. It seeks to be purely textual, a construct made only of language. I associate the style specifically with the New Yorker in which, for structural, physical, reasons it's difficult to find the beginning of a specific piece. The editors seem to have dealt with this not by fixing the bad magazine design, but by inventing a writing style which makes it not matter. Open the thing anywhere and start reading, it doesn't matter. None of the articles actually have any structure anyway. Whenever they actually seems to say something, it's generally just remixing some essentially trivial idea that's in vogue (see: minimalism.) The remix is maybe mashed up with some other stuff, possibly an artist that's neither quite obscure nor quite mainstream. Like anything by Sontag, you finish up feeling like you've really had some shit revealed to you, but under pressure you can't quite put your finger on what. If you can summarize it, it comes out idiotically trite "well, in the end, I guess what she's saying is to do unto others as you would ... oh fuck, seriously?"

In a way, this is the triumph of formalism over content. People like Solnit, Chayka, and all the others, write within the mesh of inter-glyph-relationship that is language, much like GPT3 and other so-called Large Language Models. They are writing, manually, what is recognizably wordwooze. GPT3 is, at least in part, successful not because it writes well but because it writes badly in a currently popular style. Social media, of course, has popularized another variant of this, in which what passes for "discussion" or "argument" is in fact just the same well-worn series of remarks rephrased with slightly different words. It isn't that GPT3 doesn't write gibberish, it does. It's that many of the humans write the same kind of gibberish.

In the same way, I think the AI picture makers are getting a pass. So much of the imagery we see is formalism, as pure as the maker can manage. Photographs cannot escape a certain connection to reality, but this can at least be minimized and often that rather seems to be the point. Photographers are obsessed with "composition" which to them means a quasi-linguistic method of arranging forms in the frame so as to "be a good picture." Photographers are obsessed with correct exposure, and "what are the right settings for..." and the right way to light a thing, or whatever. The actual content is largely irrelevant, and when you must think about it, you should probably reach for one of a handful of tropes. An arrow pointing left and a guy walking right, perfect. Now for the composition, and what about The Light! The Light! and so on. Seriously, fuck the light. Nobody cares about the god damned light.

An AI that basically can't do anything except remix tropes fits right into this shithole, and makes what most people will see as Strong Images or whatever. It's just visual wordwooze, and the hands are all fucked up. I don't know if people are just discarding the pictures with hands, or is Midjourney's minders have hacked it, but I've noticed that AI generated pictures just don't show hands at all any more. Once you see it, it becomes kind of hilarious the lengths to which the pictures go to hide the hands.

This appears to me to be one of those confluences of culture and technology. Photography appeared at a moment when technology (chemistry) happened to arrive at a very specific moment (what chemicals are light sensitive? what dissolves in what?) that lined up perfectly with a cultural interest in perspective drawing. It's not as if these things were happening all the time, and just lined up this time. Both of those are nearly unique events, which for reasons beyond my ken, occurred at more or less the same time and place.
In this case, we have the post-post-modern cultural phenomenon, in which people who fundamentally have nothing to say because they've never read, done, or experienced anything are dominating large swathes of the media/culture. At the same time we have the technical phenomenon, of machines which can produce more or less the same post-post-modern remixes of stuff, pablum suitable for satiating the masses.

As I recall it works out ok in The Silver Eggheads. I think the writers rise up, smash the machines, and a public thirsty for original work greets them with open arms. I see signs that we might be heading there (not that the photographers will smash the machines, photographers love machines, but the thirsty public with open arms thing.)

I'm not entirely optimistic.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Of Dogs, AIs, and Photographs

I regret, slightly, that there will be no followup to the previous teaser. Dr. Low has found a less disreputable publisher for his research into the scandalous behaviors of PhotoIreland. Alas. But, onwards!

My dog, upon hearing the word "walk," goes insane. Whatever her inner life actually looks like, it certainly appears that to her this word, in some meaningful way, means a specific activity. Rather, it means one of a sort of cloud of activities. It has synonyms: "hike," "park," "leash," and "poo-bag" at least. It appears that hearing the word triggers a set of emotions (pleasurable) and memories of previous walks, hikes, etc, and most definitely an expectation of more of the same. The word connects in some meaningful way to a set of emotions and a set of ideas about reality, about things that actually happen from time to time.

To me, the word is a shortened form of a sentence: "would you like to go for a walk?" which means in a bunch of ways. The dog and I agree on the important ones, which are the bundle of emotions and the real-world activities which occur from time to time. We agree on the way the sentence connects to the emotional and the real. What the dog misses is the linguistic content. She has no notion of the interrogative voice, she has no notion of preferences, not really. Her vocabulary in general, while very real, is limited to a handful of nouns which connect to things she likes very much, and other noises, "commands," which prompt her to do things (e.g. sit) in exchange for things she likes very much (food.)

You and I, on the other hand, have a rich linguistic structure to play with. We know about prepositions, like "of" as in "the ear of the dog" which is a meaningless idea to my dog. My dog knows about things being attached to other things, and she seems to have a notion of possession or perhaps ownership, but I cannot imagine it would even occur to her to express these things. They simply are. For you and me, words like "dog" refer to a real thing, refer to (probably) a bundle of emotional material, and also refer to a bunch of other words. Dogs are mammals, they have four feet, they like to go on walks, they bite you. Words are "defined" in terms of other words, and live in grammatical relationships to other words. "Dog" is a word that appears in some sentences in some places, and not in others.

If you pay attention in the right places, we're seeing a lot of "AI" systems appearing. Most recently a chat-bot based on GPT3, with which you can have a sort of conversation. You can ask it to write a song in the style of Aerosmith about prosciutto and, by all accounts, it will do a weirdly good job of it.

These things are, essentially, pure language. They are built by dropping a half a trillion words of written English into a piece of software that builds another piece of software. This second piece of software "knows" a great deal about where and how the word "dog" appears in English text. It "knows" in some sense that "ear" is a word that can exist in an "of" relationship with a "dog," and that the reverse is rare. To GPT3 the word "dog" is connected to a great mass of material, none of which is emotional (GPT3 lacks an endocrine system) and none of which is reality (GPT3 has no model of the world, only of language.) In a real sense, GPT3 is the opposite of a dog, being composed of precisely those facets of language which a dog lacks. Or, to put it another way, if you could somehow combine GPT3 with a dog, you'd have a pretty fair representation of a human.

It happens that a great deal of what humans do these days is a lot like GPT3. Many of us live online enough that much of our "input" comes in the form of language, and much of the language we "output" is really just pattern matching and remixing, not that different from what GPT3 does. We don't really think up a response to whatever we just read, we dredge up the fragments of an appropriate response and assemble them roughly into something or other and mash the reply button. Usually angrily.

I promised you photographs.

Consider visual art, specifically representational art.

This is a drawing of a dog. It is not a dog, nor is it the word "dog." Most likely, though, it connects to the same emotional and reality-based set of material that the word "dog" connects to, or close enough. What it lacks is the linguistic connection. Just as my dog understands the word "walk" we might understand a drawing of a "dog." A drawing of a dog generally will refer to, will be connected to, an abstraction of dog-ness. You might recognize the specific dog, or not. If you don't, you'll get "a dog" from it. Even if you do recognize the dog, the distance a drawing creates might push you a little toward the abstraction of dog-ness.

A photograph of a dog, like this one,

inevitably refers to a specific dog. Whether or not you recognize the dog, the dog in the photo is a specific dog. This one is named Julia, and she knows several words, among them "walk."

A picture, like a dog, functions as kind of the inverse of a contemporary GANS-based AI system. It is emotional and real, it is not linguistic.

It may be worth noting that AI systems in the old days went the other way around. They tried to hand-build a model of the (or a) world, and hand-code some rules for interacting with that world, or answering questions, and so on. Just like modern AI systems, these systems also produced interesting toys and almost no actual use cases, but the results were a lot less eerily "good" than the current systems.

In the modern era, the systems don't know anything, really. GPT3 does not know that the Tigers won the World Series in 1968. You can probably persuade it to produce the right answer to a properly formed question about the 1968 World Series, but GPT3 actually knows only that "Tigers" is the glyph that naturally appears in the "answer" position relative to your textual question. It's also likely to guess that the name of a baseball team appears there, and randomly shovel one in there until you rephrase your question. You can get a remarkable amount of what looks like knowledge into this kind of enormous but purely linguistic system. What follows "What is 2 times 3?" well, it might be "6" or it might be <some numeral> or perhaps it's just x or some sentence about mathematics. It depends on which pseudo-neurons you tickle with the way you phrase your question.

The current systems for making pictures are, weirdly enough, based on language models as well. As far as I know they work by moving back and forth between picture and language. When you ask for a picture of a dog, it makes a picture of something, and uses an image describing AI system to describe it, and then it measures how much the textual description of the current picture matches the textual prompt you gave it. Then it... very cleverly? modifies the picture, and repeats until the computed description text is close enough to your prompt text. Somewhere in there, fragments of pictures it's been trained on show up.

Notably, there is no model of reality in there. MidJourney can't do hands, because it has no idea that hands have 4 fingers and a thumb. It doesn't know that hands are a thing. It "knows" that certain glyphs appear at certain places in certain pictures. And, to be fair, hands are hard and you learn nothing at all about how to draw hands or even hand anatomy by looking at pictures. Neither, of course, is there a model of emotion in there anywhere. Not in the text systems, not in the picture systems. These are all made by delicately, surgically, removing the complex mesh of linguistic relationships from the world and from emotion. They operate by analyzing this isolated linguistic system as a system of glyphs and relationships.

I am certainly not the first to propose that genuine intelligence, intelligence that we recognize as such, might require a body, a collection of sense organs, and perhaps an emotional apparatus, but I think we are seeing convincing evidence of that today.

What makes this terrible and terribly interesting is that we respond to pictures and to words with emotion and attempts to nail them to reality. We imagine the world of the novel, and of the photograph. We respond with joy and anger and sadness. We're attempting to reach through whatever it is to the creator, to the author, to feel perhaps what they felt, to see what they saw, to imagine what they imagined. We do this with GPT3 output as well as Jane Austen output. We do it with DALL-E output as well as Dali output. At least, we try. With the AIs, there is no creator, author, painter, not as we imagine them. There is no emotional creature there, there is no observer of reality, there is no model of reality involved at all. All we get it remixes of previously made text and pictures. Very very convincing remixes, but remixes nevertheless.

A photograph, or something that looks like a photograph, feels to us more closely nailed to reality than a drawing or a painting, we react to it as if that stuff had really, for real, been in front of the lens of a camera. When an AI is in play, the distance between reality and the picture is infinite, at the moment of creation. At the moment of consumption, the apparent gap drops to zero, with consequences we cannot really guess at. People say things like "uncanny valley" and also speculate that the system will improve until the uncanny valley goes away. The last assertion is questionable, in my mind. Some detectable essence of uncanny valley may well be irreducibly present, the trace of a complete lack of a reality, the trace of the machine without emotion, the trace of the engine that remixes convincingly but knows and feels nothing. These systems always seem to tap out right around the uncanny valley, and then the wonks produce a new toy to distract us.

Does it make any difference if the author who writes "the ear of the dog" understands that phrase? Does it matter that they know what an ear is, and what a dog is? Does it matter whether they have stroked the ear of a dog, and felt its warmth? Is it enough that they know that of the glyphs "dog", "ear" and "of" the ordering 2-3-1 is common, and all the other ones are not? We react the same either way.

Does the emptiness of the "author" somehow come through, inevitably, or could we get along an author who has no heart? We're finding out now, and so far the answer seems to be yes, yes the emptiness does come through, albeit subtly. We shall see.

Monday, December 12, 2022

The Non-Profit Industrial Complex

This is kind of gossipy, feel free to move along.

Anyone who's spent any time dealing with non-profits knows that they're all pretty much a shitshow. They're interested in their thing, whether it's lobbying for bike lanes, feeding the poor, or putting on photography festivals. They're very not interested in, or good at, getting the paperwork done correctly. I don't think I've ever known of a non-profit that's filed its Form 990 on time. So, that's a baseline.

We also know that photography tends to attract a certain perhaps overage of mediocrities. Yes, people who want to feed the poor are often dolts as well, but photography as a whole seems to have a lot of people who rather fancy styling themselves as "into photography" without actually being into anything other than trying on an identity. Of course, there is a spectrum from "dolt" to "genius" so you find all kinds of people in the middle.

Finally, note that photography non-profits, of the sort that put on festivals and whatnot, seem to rise and fall. They're the hot thing for a few years, then they're struggling for funding, and then they're gone. Except for Aperture, I guess, but then, they seem to be actual grownups.

My acquaintance (some say my very very special best friend, but they are in error) Dr. Dennis Low, animal photographer, Londoner, occasionally sends me bits and pieces of things from his investigations. He's mildly obsessed with the sheer swampiness of British Photography as a bastion of know-nothing blow-hards, liars, cheats, and idiots. This is saying something, since he came at it from literary criticism and fine art painting, so the fact that he finds it especially venal is, I think, telling.

One of the funnier bits is the Story of PhotoIreland. They have been one of the Hotter items for a bit, but I think their star may be descending?

If I understand/recall the various tidbits properly, it appears that this thing was basically just one dude all along, maybe two people some of the time. Their governance appeared to be offering highish profile Photography People seats on the board of directors, but never actually making it official. PhotoIreland would get a bit of press about So-and-so joining the board. So-and-so would stick it on their resume and maybe get a bit of juice. Perhaps they even had a meeting now and then! But the paperwork was never filed, and they never actually joined the board.

To be fair what's-his-name seems to have actually put on festivals and whatnot with money he raised, but there's actually a reason for having a board and actual governance!

I dare say it was quite efficient. Decision-making is a breeze when it's just you, after all. Still, it's a bad look when you're selling resume material, but not actually delivering it. I guess when you're getting paid in "exposure" maybe there's not a lot of incentive to deliver anything. "Join our board" "cool, can I put it on my CV?" "of course!" and then it turns out you were never on the board at all that your employer can tell, and everyone rather has egg on their face. It's not like you did it on purpose, and it's not like you lied about having a PhD, but it's still not great.

If I understand rightly, this has proven a little embarrassing for a few people, and as a bonus, PhotoIreland appears to be getting its paperwork in order. So, good for them, I guess!

Anyways, I disagree with Dr. Low slightly on what this all means. I suspect that basically all the equivalent organizations are just as fucked up. It follows that at some percentage of these organizations, though by no means all, the dude in charge, the dude who is actually is the entire thing, it treating it as a personal piggy bank. There's so little money in play, though, that he's using it to buy an illicit pint a couple times a year and that's about it.

In some ways, I am more interested in the idea that literary criticism is somehow not this much of a mess? I should enquire!

Anyway Dr. Low has provided me with a detailed rundown of some of the shenanigans in his inimitable way, and I am laboriously formatting it for blogger's terrible software, and you'll be able to sort through what the kids call "the receipts" in the near future, perhaps tomorrow!

Saturday, December 3, 2022

So What The Hell, Huh?

This is a set of hastily written notes responding, loosely, to Jonathan Blaustein's recent column which you can read here, and which includes among other things some angst about the lack of Big Wild Photography Projects.

Let's set the stage.

In the 1970s Susan Sontag kind of makes mainstream some fairly incoherent but very quotable notes on photography in which one of the few actual ideas you can discern is that photography might be kinda problematic. It might be kind of... acquisitive in an unseemly way. At roughly the same time Mulvey invents the idea of male gaze wherein we're seeing a kind of Marxist approach to criticism.

Through the next few decades, we see Marxist criticism applied more broadly, but especially to media. Photography is more than Art it is also Media, so it falls under that category, and is thus a victim of Marxist analysis. See also Stuart Hall. Marxist analysis is... what?

Roughly we can think of this kind of analysis as reducing everything to power relationships, and explaining everything in terms of those relationships. Call it "Critical Theory", call it "gaze", call it "Politics of Representation", call it "de-colonizing", in broad strokes it's all the same. Everything can be reduced to power relationships, and those explain everything.

Simultaneously we see a collapse of art criticism generally. In the present day the newspaper art critics are actually reporting news and gossip from the art industry. Only rarely do they actually stand in front of a piece of art and tell you something about it, mostly they're interested in the motions of money and people through the local museums.

Into this vacuum we see a bunch of people steeped in the aforementioned Marxist theory. Anything that is actually Criticism of an Art Thing rather than just gossip or news tends strongly to do little more than uncover the power relationships involved in making the thing, especially if the thing is not merely art, but media which is to say, photography. In the present day we are seeing almost nothing that counts as actual art criticism of photography, which is not just an indictment of whoever is perceived as having the power. It's basically all been reduced to working out where "up" is and then "punching up."

Well, not all of course, but uncomfortably large amounts of it are. Enough of it is.

This makes it very risky to do big wide-ranging projects. You'll be seen as "up" merely if you can pull that kind of budget and support together, and you're practically certain to fumble something or other and been seen as an oppressing colonialist dickhead whatever. The indictment might even be fair and correct! But once the indictment is made, that's all there will ever be. Success of any kind, even successfully completing all but the most minor work, paints a huge target on your back. Who the hell wants any part of that? You're much safer if you're a struggling artist who somehow can't get the big shows.

At the same time, photography has evolved over the last 20 years, evolved as a cultural entity. Jonathan recites, correctly, the truism that now everyone has a camera, and everyone takes pictures. It is, I think, clear to everyone that... something is different. Photos are somehow more ephemeral, more digital, less studied. As media they've become a different kind of a thing. To compare photography today to photography 50 years ago is to compare television to cinema. It's the same but.. different. The uses are different, the cultural impacts are different, the way they're made is different. They're the same, except for everything.

This lands in the middle of the shittiest era of critical apparatus ever, the "everything is power" tool is the only one left in the box, and it's fucking terrible. It leads nowhere and tells us nothing. Its only function is to punch anyone who accomplishes anything, more or less for the sin of accomplishing something (the only real utility of the tool is that it has a bunch of widgets you can use to justify your punching, but in the end it's just "punching up is awesome")

So we have a new photography, a largely useless critical apparatus, and a population of Fine Art photographers who are justifiably afraid to succeed.

I am not actually real surprised that nobody's doing big hairy-ass high risk projects any more!

Monday, November 28, 2022

It's Not Vernacular!!!!!

In the previous two notes I have cited vernacular photography a few times, as a source, and inevitably more than one person has latched on to that.

I am explicitly not suggesting that vernacular photography is the way forward!

I am fine with vernacular photography, it's great. I am also fine with overworked photos, although they are less great. My point is essentially Berger's: there is a point of crisis in working to produce a photograph, a point at which you cease to discover your subject, and begin to discover things about the photograph itself. When you continue much past that crisis point you begin to make a picture that is about itself, rather than to discover things about your subject (or yourself, or whatever.)

You can produce highly non-vernacular photos without going past that crisis point. I've shown you this thing, and even given away some prints of it:

This thing is the result of a well-defined process which in almost no way resembles the modern "work with test prints until you die" model.

I observed the lilies on the dining room table, doing their thing. Specifically I noted the way the stems under the water were folding up. I buckled to the urge to photograph these things, because I am weak. I hastily hung up a dark blanket in the basement and set the pot of lilies on a precarious pile of basement junk in front of same, and set up the camera on a tripod. I got a flashlight. This took perhaps 10 minutes.

Then I made a short series of long exposures, painting the lilies with the flashlight, trying to bring out whatever felt right. This took no more than another 10 minutes.

I pulled the files onto my computer, fiddled with a few levels and curves, cropped with 4:5, and was done. Maybe 10 more minutes. Timestamps suggest 80 minutes from exposure to finished, but you should assume I got at least one cup of coffee in there.

The point of all this is that what I was engaged in was an exploration of the subject, an adventure aimed to reveal what seemed to me important, or whatever it was I was responding to when I saw the jar of flowers on the table. That's it. I stopped when I felt I'd brought that out as much as I could.

It's not vernacular, nobody would look at that photo and say "ahhh, I see you're deploying the tropes of vernacular photography." It's an extremely formal photograph, that looks pretty heavily worked. It is not. It is a hastily made voyage of discovery. It shares with vernacular photography not a look, or a style, but rather an approach to seeing. Vernacular photography is about recording what it in front of the camera, about revealing what is seen. Look how cute my daughter is! Look at the way the stems of these lilies are folding up! See?

Can you tell? Does it look like something that would get heavily upvoted on whatever web site?

Well. Kind of? It's formal and beautiful, but it doesn't have any of the marks of being ostentatiously overworked which seem to be a requirement to make Flickr's "Explore" page, and I consider that a good thing. There is, I feel, a harshness, a directness, that suits me very well indeed. These are the kinds of pictures I want to produce, the kinds of pictures that I want to build into larger things with meaning.

My only issue with this photo is that it doesn't mean anything. It is, I feel, a well-made study that hits certain notes that I want to hit, but it doesn't mean anything. It exemplifies a method that works for me, a method which can produce other photographs which do "mean." It exemplifies a method that stops at the moment of crisis, and can therefore produce work that is about something other than the photograph.

This photo, I think, is about its subject, and whatever else these is about it, I think that comes through.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Method and Process II

I offer herein further hasty remarks to clarify yesterday's hasty remarks.

John Berger wrote a well known essay about the process of drawing. It seems to appear in every essay collection, and as a consequence I own probably at least three copies of it, perhaps more. In it, he expounds a version of his notion of what Art is about, how it made (and, as a consequence, how it is consumed.) Berger considers Art to be a process of discovery, the act of making Art is a series of discoveries about the subject, the artist, their relationship, whatever. Anything but the Art Object itself.

In drawing, Berger says, you discover things about the subject and represent them with lines. At some point, a drawing reaches a crisis point, a point at which the process of drawing pivots from setting down discoveries about the subject to setting down things according to the needs of the drawing itself. The drawing, in my paraphrase, begins to be about itself rather than about the subject.

It seems to me that much of "serious photography" begins more or less at the crisis. The photographer observes something in the world, records it with the camera, and from that point forward for the Serious Photographer the process largely ignores the subject, and indeed everything except the photograph itself.

Even Adams who banged on endlessly about things that get used constantly by Serious Photographers never let up on his belief that all work done on the picture had to be referred back to the subject, and the photographer's relationship with the subject. To express that was specifically, explicitly, the point of all manipulation.

This has, largely, been lost. Most modern serious photographs are about themselves, and that is what makes them uninteresting. That is why we've seen them all.

This, in contrast to vernacular photography, which is always and entirely about the subject.

Consider also that the only people who look at a photograph and consider the photograph itself as a thing are themselves photographers. Normal people look at the subject. So, when some Serious Goob "makes" a photograph, they've created an object that is about itself, about something that normies won't even see. They'll see the subject which, in a meaningful way, is something the photographer doesn't even care about. The subject is just there to be depicted by the photograph, and the normies can kinda tell.

Now, to be fair, art that is about itself is pretty normal these days. Berger was always a bit of a weirdo, and while today everyone pretends to hold him up as a standard, most of even those people haven't the foggiest idea what he said and would violently disagree with it if they knew. Berger is a source of little quotable bits, not of actual ideas, these days.

From where I sit a synthesis of the vernacular's subject-forwardness with an artistic grasp of formal properties is if not the only way to take photos, certainly an excellent one.

Compare any of the Big Names from the 20th century with the output of the average MFA student, or Street Photographer or Serious Amateur or whatever and you will, I think, see how the former tended more toward revealing discoveries about the subject, and the latter are largely making pictures which are about themselves.

I like the first ones better.

Don't over-work your photos, man.

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Method and Process

For decades now, at least, we've been innundated with boring think pieces about Those Darn Kids Don't Know How To Do Photography. The material is always the same: you have to shoot a bunch of photos, and then edit, edit, edit. Trim it down to either the bangers, or a tight "story" (whatever that is), or possibly only the bangers that tell a story. Only show your best work. Agonize over the edit. Tape work prints to the wall of a tiny hut you built with your own hands and live with them for a year under a vow of silence, eating only boiled rice and spring water.

Which, ok, that's absolutely a way to do it. I was brought up to do photography in exactly this way. Millions of other people as well. It produces a specific kind of a thing, a very studied thing. An inevitably stale and overworked thing which reeks of brow-sweat.

Mike over at ToP espouses this method, but so do endless other grey-beards from the same general era. I have probably espoused it myself. Again, it is the way I was taught, and is the method I gravitate to unless I am extremely diligent.

AD Coleman, the famed photography critic, does not even consider photography as an artistic effort to exist unless some variation of this process has occurred. The only pictures he considers as a photographer's oeuvre are the ones that were, in some meaningful way, prepared for publication under the direction of the photographer. All the archive-mining going on is something else, something he rejects.

Again, I feel that urge.

And yet, at the same time, by far the majority of photographs made are spontaneous gestures that partake of little-to-none of this stuff. And yet, at the same time, archive-mining occurs and produces objects, collections, gallery shows.

To simply wave your hand and declare that none of this is legitimate strikes me as absurd. It's here, and it's not going away.

This 20th century approach to photography has done a great deal of damage along the way. Alongside the billions who take pictures freely, without artifice, are the millions who have read these think pieces. Those millions earnestly work away according to the book, and produce well made, extremely studied, garbage. There are millions, even billions, of photos which on the one hand demand our attention with their production values, their careful framing, and their earnestness, and which yet mean nothing. They have sacrificed their freshness, their spontaneity, for nothing.

It is a new era, and there is much more to photography that black and white large format film photography, and the pale imitations of that process which sombre men with grey beards urge upon us.

Modern photographs are not, as a rule, intended to be examined. They are ephemera, to be glanced at. Impressionistic glimpses of something, a momentary view, like the rows of a cornfield as you drive past. Every now and then the corn stalks align along another diagonal and for a fleeting moment, order emerges from chaos, and then is gone again. This is OK, you're allowed to do this. You're also welcome to do the shoot/edit/suffer cycle! Go for it! Nobody's stopping you from making cubist paintings, either, go nuts.

It is a personal struggle of mine, to navigate my impulse to be Walker Evans all over again, and to free myself to make spontaneous, disposable, gestures. I do find that the latter produces things I like a lot better.

The work of my own that I like the best is made in motion. It might be studied, it might be organized into something, but it's made in motion. When I am making final photos I generally just snap them. I don't edit heavily, I shoot lightly. I certainly don't work a vast archive down to a few photos. I might make a lot of intermediate photos, photos to be rephotographed or whatever, but the finals are final. I might throw 50% of finals out.

I shoot, I move things around, print, think, organize, shoot, organize. But I never sit in a mud hut with work prints on the wall. I do not sit, there is nothing static about how I work. I move, I shoot, and then it's done. Either it's good or bad, but it's done.

And I'm an old guy, trained in the old ways.

What might those darn kids do if we stopped telling them the mud hut thing?

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

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

..are categorically
…ons, 413
<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


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


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


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!


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.