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Wednesday, January 19, 2022

On Portraits III

This won't really be about portraits, but it kind of flows out of the same thread of thought, so here we are.

I have proposed in the past, and tried vigorously to sell it both to my readers and myself, that people perceive the camera's power as a thing that makes photographs; that they perceive the power of those photographs as talismans with the power to conjure. The photo conjures a kind of pseudo-presence, and the knowledge that it does so is, per this theory, what makes the camera's lens repellent. This has never sat that well with me, but it was the best I had, so I tried to like the theory. I don't think it's completely wrong, even now.

Still, there is I think something more primal in play as well, and I think that this primal thing is maybe more important.

Consider the ways we can be looked at.

In face-to-face conversation, we look at one another. We read expression and body language, in concert with the mouth noises we're hearing. Communication in this mode fully integrates sight and sound, what I see on your face modulates the meaning of what I hear you say, and vice versa. I am looking at you, you are looking at me, and neither one of us is self-conscious about this or even really aware of it. However, if you stop noticing my body language, my expression, and respond only to my words, the odds are good that the conversation is about to go off the rails.

Two people are across the room from one another, perhaps at a party. One looks at the other. The other catches the glance, arches an eyebrow. The first can smile and nod in reply, and close the loop. A conversation of sorts is occurring. The first can also let his glance slide off, pretend not to notice, or can continue to stare without making acknowledgement. This is offensive; this is rude.

We have, most of us, experienced the difference between conversational looking, and that "looking" from a loved one that makes us ask "what? do I have something in my teeth?" and perhaps even felt the switch from one mode to another mid-conversation.

The distinction is maybe one of the second person, versus the third person. I can feel when my wife withdraws and begins to see me as "him" rather than "you." It turns out that "he" has some unsightly nose hair, or something, which distracts her from the second-person looking.

At the same time, though, an audience sees the athlete or the actor in the third person, and the result is not rudeness or even necessarily cold, or particularly distant. The so-called "audience effect" has been studied, apparently, and can result in a bunch of different outcomes. To be seen, to be watched, in the third person invariably has an emotional impact. It may spur an athlete to greater performance, it may rouse the pretty girl to anger. It is, I think, always felt in some way.

I'm going to name these things social and asocial looking, on the grounds that the first kind is essentially a shared social activity, and the latter... is not.

I have no idea if there is research on this specifically. I do know that "audience effect" is a thing which has been studied, and I know that there's a lot of research around animals looking at other animals, and how it's sometimes seen as hostility or whatever. But this social/asocial distinction is not something I have specifically run across, as far as I recall. Nevertheless, I think it's very much a real thing?

I also have no idea if this is some sort of spectrum, or whether these are two distinct and separate things.

What is clear, at least to me, is that we perceive the camera as a kind of asocial looking. The camera observes, but does not take part in the conversation. The camera sees us in the third person. This has, well, it has effects. Various and sundry effects that depend on a lot of variables.

My conceit here is that there is not much functional difference between photographing someone, and staring dead-eyed at them.

The candid photograph is thus related to the kind of normal third-person people watching that is, at least in the west, perfectly acceptable. I can stare at the pretty girl, the cute baby, the interesting old gentleman, subject to certain rules: I have to be moderately discreet and fairly brief; if my gaze is observed, I have to acknowledge with a pleasant gesture (switch to social looking,) and then move on. The formal portrait strives to simulate second-person looking, the "social gaze" if you will, and often falls short.

The camera "looks" asocially, inevitably. Essentially, it has no eyebrows to waggle, and that is the end of it. The viewer of a photograph also looks asocially at the subject, because the subject cannot reply, being just a photo. In a real social interaction, subject and viewer would (might) interact, might see one another in the social mode. The photograph splits this, the camera sees asocially, and later the viewer sees likewise asocially.

I think, perhaps, this might be the root of the perceived hostility, the perceived invasion-of-privacy, the discomfort we feel, in front of the camera. It is less the photograph and its talismanic power, and more the simple stare of a dead-eyed stranger. Or, for that matter, a dead-eyed loved one.

At the same time, the dead eyed audience of the camera can spur performance, hence the smirking camera face. A model learns to act for the camera, to deliver a more useful performance than a smirk. The same lens can be seen as aggressive or hostile, leading to the raised hand and turned face or more dramatically the angry reaction (cf. Bruce Gilden, who whatever his mode, always provokes a performance of some sort.)

This does not mean that the camera is literally aggressive, it is not. It is asocial, and depending on other cues, depending on ourselves, depending on context, we react to its asocial gaze in a variety of ways.

The classical "good portrait" seems to be to be accomplished by shifting the camera's gaze as close to social looking as possible. Perhaps the subject is able, somehow, to imagine a viewer on the other side, and to "speak" with their expression and body into a void, as it were, but in the social mode. Somehow the subject is induced to respond to the expressionless eye of the camera as-if it were a social creature, as-if it were involved in the conversation, as-if it were in the second person.

The camera, somehow, becomes "you" rather than "it" if only for a moment.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Oh My Aching Head

Welcome to another episode of OMG, are the self-styled serious people in photography this bad?

Dr. John Edwin Mason recently posted this picture to twitter, a Victorian era photo titled "Venice - Island of San Giorgio, San Lazzaro degli Armeni, the Lido" and asked if it was taken from a hot air balloon,

which, well, remarkably lazy but whatever.

In the replies Melissa Lyttle, some random photographer with a twitter blue check, said they'd looked on Google Earth for tall structures nearby and found nothing. Another person, thank god, supplied the right answer, but by then everyone had moved on and they're all pretty sure this thing was shot from a hot air ballon.

Narrator: it was not.

Let's take a look at it. First of all, one might well be forgiven for thinking that it just feels wrong for a Victorian era balloon/aerial photo, and for good reasons. The angle of view is simply too low, this is the sort of view one can get from a tall building, so in general the aerial views from this era are taken from much higher, and offer a much steeper view.

Secondly, let's take a look at Google Maps, satellite view, to see if we can identify any of these structures. Wow, it's all still there. Venice's 500 year development plan is, I believe, to do no development:

This immediately establishes a sight line:

What's over there? Let's zoom out on google maps a little:

why look, it's the Piazza San Marco, where these is a giant campanile, indeed, the tallest structure in Venice. Perhaps Melissa Lyttle should spend a little more time learning how to use google's tools.

There's some other stuff you can look at, you can see where the horizon line hits the campanile in the picture, and deduce that you're about that high off the ground (certainly under 100m up, the San Giorgio campanile is about 64 meters total). You can measure widths of various objects and establish a range, and so on. This is all fairly simple, but perhaps beyond the capacity of a simple historian.

Anyways, it turns out that this was shot from the campanile in the Piazza San Marco, and this exact shot exists in endless variation. That particular vantage point is not a large physical space, so everyone gets exactly the same proportions and arrangement of objects in the frame, because that's the only choice you have.

We have fundamentally two problems here: First, Dr. Mason posts stuff like this pretty often, without deigning to do the slightest research, and frequently offers wrong-headed speculation. Second, his idiot followers who either also cannot be bothered to do research, or who do very bad research, reply with their own wrong-headed nonsense. Collectively they arrive at wrong answers, and move on with their lives. The collective stupidity and ignorance of humanity increases incrementally.

I find this very depressing.

Friday, January 14, 2022

On Portraits II

You might consider skimming/reviewing the post to which this is kind of a follow-up: On Portraits but of course I am also following up on the remarks which immediately precede these.

When you're photographing a person, there's a lot of stuff that goes on with that person.

The early photos or Diane Arbus are all about the moment when they subject sees the camera, but before they are able to assemble a response. You see their in-repose face as it closes down, subject to further analysis.

Most portraits we see take place a little after this, with a willing subject. The subject elects to submit to the camera, and arranges their features into what they think is the right thing for a picture to be taken. They think they look good, they think this expression will please, or at least satisfy, the photographer, and so on. Retail portraits of all stripes are essentially this:

It is usually a kind of amiable smirk, and represents a kind of honesty in that this is the mask the victim wants to present to the camera. But it is a mask. The smile is the same whether the person is happy or sad inside. These are easy to take, you literally get your lights set up, get the camera in-focus, and say "cheese!" I call this look "camera face."

If you don't want the smirk, then the next thing you can do is to discourage the smirk. You can tell the subject to be serious, or otherwise let them know that the smirk is unwanted. I think some cultures, at some times, have in fact defaulted to this next thing. This was their camera face.

It is a neutral, perhaps slightly hostile, look. The driving force appears to me to be a complete loss as to what should be expressed. The subject does not want to display emotion at all, but the desire to remain hidden remains. Whether because of cultural forces, or by explicit direction, the victim settles into an opaque deadpan neutrality. This pose is just as much as mask as "camera face" but without the false, pleasing, decoration pasted on.

This is also a very easy photo to take. Get your lights and focus squared away, and tell your subject to wipe that ridiculous smirk off her face, and this is what you get. If you're blessed with a cultural milieu that does not smirk in the first place, you can skip the last step.

Again, it is a mask. The inner life of the subject is completely hidden, on purpose. The subject is not interested in being emotionally available to the camera. This closed-ness always seems to border on hostility, because in our normal social circumstances this expression would likely be hostility. In normal conversation, in normal social interactions, we expect, we nearly demand, a certain degree of emotional openness. It is essential to our communication that we emote at each other, that we body-language at each other. This expression is the physical equivalent of the silent treatment.

In photography it's pretty normal and not necessarily hostile. It is a kind of body-silence, but usually is driven by a lack of anything to express. It might be, as it were, a momentary silence that the camera preserves forever and which therefore stretches out eternally like a lover who turns away and will not speak.

Neither of these postures have any emotional life to them. This is not necessarily a bad thing, perhaps you're not interested in the inner life of your subject. You're interested in their clothes, or their bodies, or their surrounding. Perhaps, like Arbus, you're actually interested in the mask itself. There's a lot of stuff to do here.

However, if you want emotional life in your pictures, you have to either do a candid:

In which the emotional/inner life of the subject is visible, but not consciously projected toward the camera, or you have to do what is often called a good portrait.

The latter is very hard. The photographer has to work through the subject's instinct to close up, to hide, to mask. The subject has to be coaxed back into revealing themselves, to expressing their emotional life on their face, while simultaneously aware of the camera. Then the emotion is both present, and projected toward the camera, and thence to us, the viewers.

Kirk Tuck has a whole bunch of these things. I don't have any. All my "good portraits" are actually candids.

The trouble with modern writing about photography is that the writers lack the imagination, and the conceptual framework, for talking about anything except "good portraits" in the Kirk Tuck sense. A few may also imagine the "candid" which they probably conflate with "street."

The result is that when some part-time critic is told to wrote up someone like Diane Arbus, or Judith Joy Ross, or August Sander, they are given to understand a) that these are Good Pictures and that b) they are portraits. They conclude that the only possible reason these pictures could be good is because it reveals the emotional inner life of the subject, therefore Arbus, Sander, and Ross (as well as innumerable others) must be doing that. So they write that down, spellcheck it, and send in their copy.

An even superficial glance at the pictures would reveal that they're not doing that thing. They might well be doing something wonderful, but they're not revealing emotional inner lives, and they're not because the subjects are furiously hiding those emotional inner lives behind a deadpan mask.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Nobody Looks

Here's a thing that is apparently making the rounds. Let me show you a couple pictures to start.

Look at them, take your time. Form an opinion. What are these people thinking, what are they feeling? Whatever.




The text accompanying tells us the usual story of the sensitive large format photographer and how her process does whatever it does to be especially revelatory about whatever and so on and so forth. This one, I guess, something something vulnerability without ever exploiting.

The person writing this trash has not, in my opinion, looked at the pictures. At all. They glanced and saw the chic washes of grey, the serious expressions, and then the read the press release, and that was pretty much it.

Here's the article itself. It has more pictures and, uh, some text.

These people are closed. These are utterly uninteresting portraits, like so many portraits we see from allegedly Serious Photographers working with Serious Processes. They tell us that the people open like flowers under the wondrous light of the photographer's process, and then everyone tweets stupidly about how the subjects open like flowers under the wondrous light, and on and on. But if you actually look at the pictures you see sullen, fed-up, people. Or people who are bored. Or people who are gamely trying to look not bored. Or whatever.

Nobody is opening like a flower, nobody's vulnerability is expressed let alone un-exploited.

This sort is criticism is ridiculous and stupid. This is just some blockheaded text ground out by someone who either doesn't give a shit at all, or who dopily "just loooooves" photography!!1!11111!! but cannot actually bear to spend even a couple of seconds actually looking at a picture.

The New Yorker is trash, but all the outlets do this. It's maddening. And nobody even drags them for this lazy bullshit, everyone just merrily retweets, because they can't be bothered to look at the pictures either. Look! Large format! Vulnerability! Serious Expressions! It's The New Yorker! retweet maybe with a little "gosh this is so great" comment to give the impression of giving a shit.

Honestly, fuck all these guys. Jesus.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

The Aggression of Photography

Theoreticians in photography are very very very fond of the idea of photography as an act of aggression, as a harmful act. This is never justified, even slightly, it is accepted as fact, and if you don't know the underpinnings, well, you're just ignorant. They don't know the underpinnings either, though, but they hide this with a well-practiced sneer.

The earliest reference I know, and it is oft-cited, is Sontag. Of course it's Sontag.

Her take on this, though, is not what they think it is. She is describing the photographer's position, a position of aggression, of taking, and acquisition. Sontag lacked the language to properly work through this, mainly because she was more interested in being Susan Sontag than in establishing a firm basis for photography criticism.

As with much else in photography, the photographic process takes an ordinary human interaction with multiple (usually two) parties, and slices it neatly in two. A portrait makes the sitter "present" for the viewer, without the corresponding reverse "presence." When I look at your portrait, I experience my half of a social interaction, but you experience nothing.

In the same way, what Sontag clearly meant was that that photographer acts as an aggressor, as a looter, and a taker, without the "victim" being correspondingly aggressed against, looted, or losing anything. I "take" your photo, but you are left unaltered. I am acquisitive about photographing these African Artifacts, but I do not acquire the artifacts themselves, the artifacts remain untouched.

Standard academic photo theory completely misses out on this slicing, instead leaning toward an essentially mystical idea that in some sense the artifacts are literally looted, that in some sense the woman is raped, and so on, on and on. This is essentially rebranded "the camera steals the soul" magical thinking.

To put it more bluntly, if a pedo photographed one of my daughters, and then pleasured himself to a print of this photo, that would be gross but it would in no way harm my daughters. Yes, he would have committed a vile rape, but only his half of it. Actual harm to my daughter in this scenario would require at least two things:

First, that she be aware of this act, and second that she be educated in modern photo theory, and to understand herself to have been in some sense raped.

(if you think this is some sort of defense of CSAM you are a) wrong and b) dumb, please stop reading my blog)

Now, there is a sort of social/psychological basis here. My daughter does understand, at least roughly, instinctively, how photographs generate a kind of presence. She would undoubtedly feel grossed out, and she might lean toward the modern theory purely on the basis of her instinctive understanding of how photos work.

This in no way changes the atavistic attitude that underpins this notion. My daughter, in that icky eventuality, would be leaning on a primitive soul-stealing attitude about photography, rather than understanding in a subtle and nuanced way that the photograph slices the interaction in two. The pervert rapes, but she is un-raped. Ok, so she's 8 or 12 depending on which one, and this might be a stretch. Nevertheless Sally Mann's children famously understood the difference between a photograph and themselves.

This is not a wildly difficult distinction to draw. It is the correct distinction to draw. It does require a little sophistication, the natural, atavistic, response is the one that is wrong. It is built on cognitive machinery that is out of date, that does not grasp the idea of a human interaction that is split in two by a sufficiently realistic picture.

Nevertheless, the photograph does split the interaction. I do not feel your gaze when you look upon my portrait. I just do not.

The fact that I know you could, and that at some lizard brain level I am disturbed by that, does not alter the reality of this slicing.

This is not to entirely reject the feelings of the lizard brain. The lizard brain feels violated, and to some extent that is potentially a "harm" but it is at best a diffuse harm, a slight harm. How much weight should be accord it?

Some weight, surely. But not infinite weight. The misplaced feelings of the lizard brain should be respected, but they should not be allowed to drive. Lizards are notoriously bad drivers.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Crit: Tulsa, OK by Victor D'Allant

This review contains a great deal of swearing.

This is a book of pictures from Tulsa, OK, taken around 2018, ostensibly of the picturesque dregs of humanity, as a kind of homage to Larry Clark's famous book, Tulsa which was made 50 years ago. Somehow D'Allant manages to work in references to the Tulsa Race Massacre too, which took place 100 years ago, but the connection here is tenuous to the point of non-existence.

The new book is clearly an homage to the earlier one, and shares some structural details as well as a location and, kind of, a theme.

Clark's book chronicles his friends over a series of years, and is mostly pensive portraits with a few photos of drug use, and smaller number of photos of nudity including one truly spectacular penis. His photos are often grainy, with occasional dutch tilt. One segment of Clark's book is a two page spread of what looks superficially like a contact sheet, but is actually motion picture strips.

D'Allant's book shares some of the graphical features: blurry photos, dutch tilt, and several spreads that also superficially resemble contact sheets. D'Allant doubles down on anything from Clark that looks like a tic, and pretty much dismisses anything that looks like a regular picture. It's all blur, tilt, and tits. More on these later. The book is, to put it mildly, design-forward. It's very... red. And over-designed.

D'Allant's book also has a lot more text than Clark's. It opens with a long essay ostensibly from his fixer, Julie Winter, about her dazzling career as a drug dealer and a lot of other things. The essay does not ring particularly true, about which more anon. Then we get blurry dutch tilt photos of an airport, and then D'Allant is in Tulsa photographing junkies. Female junkies. Invariably without their shirts on. There's a lot of what we are supposed to believe are text messages and other conversations with said junkies included as textual matter.

Ok, so even if we take this fucking thing entirely at face value we're in dicey territory. Drug users on the verge of homelessness tend to be people with a somewhat complex relationship with the truth, and we meet a lot of these people. The question is not whether there is a lot of bullshit in this book, but where the line is and who's doing more of the slinging. This is not throwing shade at homeless people, or drug addicts, it's just reality. When people are against the wall, telling the truth is not a high priority, and it should not be.

There are by my count 107 photos in the book, of which 74 contain nudity, and of those 56 have visible tits. There are no naked men. It's more than half titty shots, almost three-quarters vaguely, insincerely, smutty. It contains a couple of the lamest "bondage" photos I have ever seen in my life. This is some of the shittiest porn I have ever seen.

Despite D'Allant's desperate urge to wrap himself in the flag of the Tulsa Race massacre, the bulk of his models (let us drop the pretense at this point, there are inexpensive models that he paid to pose nude, not Julie Winters "clients" who are posing as an act of, I dunno, empowerment or whatever the fuck D'Allant's claiming) are white.

Stirred in here are a few photos of Americana (a flag crumpled on the snowy ground, etc.) and symbols of cheesy religion (a neon cross, etc.) Precisely the kinds of things a sloppy dimwit would shove in to try to position his book as some sort of cultural critique. D'Allant is, after all, a visual anthropologist. Whatever the fuck that is. A lot of photos were taken through car windows for no reason that I can discern.

Part of D'Allant's homage to Clark's book is several pages that look like contact sheets. Looking closely we see that in all but one of them he's simply duplicated the same uninteresting photo over and over. For one spread, he flipped it for the facing page. Sweet jesus what the fuck. The one where he didn't just lazily dupe is a set of photos of one of the very few (the only?) black models he hired pretending to box. You could probably make some racial hay here but honestly I can't even.

At the very end, lower right on the colophon page, we find a statement in which D'Allant says, well, let me quote it:

If most of the stories in this book are true to the best of our knowledge, some of them may have been edited. And some of them may even be #fakenews

Given that my hackles were up, having noted a bunch of tells already, I virtually exploded with fury at this confession that he's made all this shit up. This legitimately makes me very angry. This book is being presented as documentary, but fairly clearly contains much that is untrue, and we wrap up with the convoluted, coy, confession of fakery. Ugh. Fuck you, Mr. D'Allant.

I don't know how this book was made. I do know that if you flew in to Tulsa, and worked your way through the cheapest models on modelmayhem who would shoot nudes, this is the book you'd get. To be fair, a lot of those models are in fact drug users.

So, what are the tells that this is bullshit? None of these are smoking guns, and any single one could be fully legit. Together they paint a picture that is not encouraging.

It begins with the essay at the beginning, by his fixer, Julie. Julie uses the words "jail" and "prison" interchangeably. This continues throughout the book. D'Allant doesn't know that they're different, and doesn't know that ex-cons are, at least sometimes, a little finicky about the distinction.

Julie tells us that she was a drug dealer, and is again. We are apparently intended to believe, curiously, that dealing drugs to the nearly homeless is a surprisingly profitable and glamorous career (it is not, fuck you, no.)

Julie notes in passing, for no particular reason, that while in "jail" she wrote porn, that is to say, fiction, for money. When already suspicious, one cannot help but wonder if this is a sly hint.

Moving on we see a lot of scenes that suggest drug use, the naked girl on the rumpled bed, and so on. Scenes that look like drug-use scenes from movies. We see only two actual uses of drugs, and both are weirdly enough some sort of powdered drug being lined up for snorting (not actually being snorted, though.) What makes this notable is that the people we're supposed to believe these subjects to be don't use that way. They smoke and they shoot, snorting is largely an affectation of the effete, an expensive and wasteful pain in the ass. We see no smoking or shooting. Which is extra odd, finding someone to smoke a crack pipe on camera in Tulsa, OK, 2018 should have been pretty easy.

Also, powdered drugs in lines is the easiest "drug use" scene to fake, especially if you're deliberately making all your photos blurry. Flour, sugar, whatever, especially if you're not even going to pretend to snort it.

The text messages are all either completely lucid, or gibberish, which seems odd. One angry boyfriend writes in gibberish but somehow manages to spell "anthropologist" correctly.

Close examination of the pictures in fact shows almost nothing at all that looks seedy, except that the models are generally out of shape and have tattoos. Even the police ride-along sequence is just pictures of cops. There's a bit of sex, tethered weirdly to dubious "text" conversations with D'Allant's "editor" saying that he can't possibly! But he does! Hah! Take that "editor", you prude! I will so include the photos of the inexpensive model putting things in her vagina, because I am edgy!

If you dig a little further, you find that Julie Winter is a real person. She has an identifiable tattoo on her collarbone. Her facebook page claims she's been clean, legal, and working on her life for the last seven years which rather clashes with the fanciful story of her glamorous life as a street dealer selling in 2018. It's possible that an actual working drug dealer would work on a book that identifies her — with photos — as a working drug dealer in 2021, but that seems unlikely.

So where does the line between truth and falsehood lie, here? I don't think it's strictly within the realm of stories the models told D'Allant. I think that this book is mostly, or entirely, a construct. I do not think Julie Winter is a drug dealer now, and I do not think she was a drug dealer in 2018. I think the majority, and perhaps all, of the subjects in this book are simply inexpensive hired models and, sometimes, their boyfriends.

Inexpensive models are sometimes involved in low-budget porn, and while there's a certain amount of that in the book, we should not take this as evidence of reality or truthiness.

In my judgement, D'Allant is a fraud, and this book is a fraud. I think the weird little text on the colophon is his attempt at a get out of jail free card, a "ha ha j/k lol" squib to ward off contempt. It's not working.

It is also a bad, lazy, book. These pictures do not even get to wear the cloak of documentary to hide their shoddiness, they are deliberately made to look shoddy to impress a faked air of truthiness on them. This is a fake "document" which recycles any number of dumb tropes, and is a fucking insult to Clark's book.

What really puzzles me is why anyone would put this level of production and design into a dogshit like this. It's quite well made and, as noted, heavily overdesigned.

I don't even like Clark's book that much, it turns out, but at least it's honest.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

The Accounting

UPDATE: Crud, I forgot an important bit, so I am sticking it in now. If you read this already a) you're quick and b) skip down to the UPDATED BIT note below to read the updated bit.

As attentive readers will know, I did a book sale.

This is the story of how it went and what I learned. There is a pretty detailed accounting of the money spent, earned, and to be donated, at the bottom of these remarks.

I made a book, which you can now buy here, even if you're outside the US and Canada! It's arguably a kind of silly book, but I prefer to think of it as "fun." It's an apologia for local, neighborhood, non-gallery, art. It's amusing. It's inexpensive.

It began as a project to put up humorous signs around my neighborhood, which I intended to photograph for no particular reason. This project grew and rearranged its shape over a few months as people interacted with the signs, and talked to me about it a little. One neighbor, searching for the word "guerrilla" used instead the word "vigilante" to describe the project, hence the name of the book.

At some point I took this formless, goofy, semi-prank and thought it through. It became clear to me that I had been, in fact, making a little statement about Art as a local practice. Let's not get carried away, mostly I was goofing off and making stupid jokes, but somewhere under there, propping it up, was (and is) my notion that we ought to do more art-like stuff for our friends and neighbors.

And so I made a book about it, about that. It's mostly jokes, but a little bit conceptual art.

At this point, or somewhere near here, I decided to try to make it "real" in some sense. I would commission an essay and make an honest effort to sell the thing. I would promote it, do a pre-sale, have some books printed, ship them out, and do the whole thing soup-to-nuts, just like a real boy. So I did that.

Jonathan Blaustein agreed to write me an essay, for which I paid him (because I am a real boy, and this is a real book, damn it.) I made a video and made a fundraiser, just like a real boy.

I sold 37 books, which is nearly twice as many as I thought I might, and a bit more than 1/3 as many as I aimed at. This is, to my mind, a victory. I aimed small, ok? I don't know many people, I have zilch for social media following, and lots of people don't like me at all. You can and should do better, because people like you and you have more followers than I do. Yes, really, you do. You have no idea.

What did I learn?

First of all, kickstarter is the natural choice for these things, and probably would have served me technically quite a bit better. I did not use it, because I was structuring the thing kind of as a charitable fundraiser (although at least morally it was and is a book sale and not a charitable fundraiser.) Kickstarter does not allow charitable fundraisers, and rather than fuss with the details I selected another platform. Tim V of Leicaphilia sold a book via gofundme, and so I chose that one.

Then I started emailing people. Jonathan impressed upon me that you have to sell, you have to reach out and ask people one by one to buy. He's right, I think. It's easy to think "ooo, there's a book I could buy" but you're pretty unlikely to go actually buy one without some trigger. A polite email saying "please buy my book" can be that trigger. So I emailed a bunch of people. I don't know very many people, though, so I didn't actually send that many emails out.


One person I emailed was Kirk Tuck, who actually does have followers, and a bunch of them. Kirk not only agreed to buy a book, but wrote about my book sale on his blog! Holy crap! It was awesome. About half of my sales are by way of Kirk, I estimate, or were at least encouraged by his endorsement. We know some of the same people, in the sense that everyone I know also knows Kirk, and he knows roughly a million more people as well.

Anyway, huge thanks to Kirk for making this thing go. This, I suspect, is how it goes, though. You know some people, and they also know people. If you hit one or two of your more popular friends, it can snowball, and this is (maybe) normal.

After that I confess I kind of stopped pushing. I could have probably emailed another half dozen people, or followed up here and there with this person or that one, but I had sold 30+ books and was starting to worry about order fulfillment and plus which I was pretty tired of direct selling and Christmas was coming up fast. So I mostly knocked off. I mighta sold 40 books if I'd kept at it!

Because I was under the impression that shipping to Canada would be pretty cheap, and I knew I could ship Media Mail in the USA, I restricted the pre-sale to US and Canada. This was, in a way, stupid. Shipping to Canada is pretty expensive, pretty much the same price as shipping to Europe. Still, I avoided the silliness of printing in Seattle, shipping to me, and then re-shipping across the ocean. I am pretty sure that if you, in Europe, buy one from blurb, they'll print it in Europe and ship it from there, which is much more sensible. I hope they do anyway.

I did correctly research mailers, and priced them at "about a buck each" and I priced books correctly at "maybe 8 or 9 bucks each" and US postage of "around 3 bucks" so that worked out well. I padded the price a bit because I knew Canada wasn't going to give me Media Rate for sure.

My initial plan was actually to try to sell 20 books. The rule of thumb for kickstarter is "have 1/3 of your sales in your pocket before you open" and I felt like I could definitely count on 6 or 7 sales. Jonathan shamed me into upping that, and I am glad he did. So I opened with a goal of 100 books, at $15 each.

There was an option to buy in for a dollar plus a local donation which, to my surprise, nobody took. I wanted to be accessible even to people who feel like they have no spare money, but maybe I didn't reach anyone like that. Many people donated more than the minimum, which option gofundme kind of encourages.

GoFundMe turned out to be a bit of a pain in the ass. Since it's not really a "buy stuff" platform, there is no default way for people to put in shipping information. You have to persuade them to send it to you separately, which was a surprising amount of work. About 1/3 of buyers didn't send me an address initially. About 2/3 of those responded to a global "hey, if you ain't, send me" update, and the rest I had to bother individually. Also, it allows anyone to contribute any amount, so "reward tiers" are hard to implement, have to be done informally, and have to be dealt with in the same ad hoc was shipping addresses are handled.

Someone donates $50. Do they want three books, or are they just generous? I am glad I didn't offer optional prints or whatever, because that would have been a mess to sort out. I think kickstarter just solves all these problems, but it is unambiguously a commerce platform.

Having raised the money, then the fun began.

I had a crappy spreadsheet I was using to keep track of my direct mail campaign, and I simply re-tasked that to keep track of orders. Just add a few columns! It'll be fine! It wasn't fine.

You really need to have a proper order tracking system. Direct mail campaigns are separate, although you should also track those carefully.

For orders you need to keep track of: who ordered, what they ordered, how much they paid, do you have their address, what is their address, have you packed their shit, have you mailed their shit. At least.

You could do this with index cards, or a proper order tracking system, or a well designed spreadsheet. What you can't do is use a terrible ad hoc spreadsheet that you're adjusting as new things turn up, and where you populate rows somewhat randomly. You gotta be on top of this shit. 37 books in 33 orders pretty much did me in and I felt at all times as if I was on the verge of losing track of it all. It's possible that I did lose track of it all, but at the same time quite a few people will be receiving books of some sort so I guess that's good, right?

ULINE makes an incredible array of products for shipping things, and sells them very cost effectively. They also ship insanely fast. They have a fulfillment center just a few miles from me, I don't know if that's luck or if they are in fact absolutely everywhere.

Blurb was probably a decent choice for printing on this scale, especially since my need for quality was very low. This thing is just a trade book, so one step up from newsprint. It's fine for what it is. With a higher quality book, I would probably have spent more on packing materials, maybe gotten a larger mailer and some sort of padded insert. This thing is just a paperback, so I folded a bit of paper over the cover and packed it in the mailer and called it good.

I sure hope I don't have to replace everyone's book because I fucked up the packing.

Mailing shit sucks.

Get return address labels, at least. You will get tired of hand-writing your own address.

If you're going to shift more than a few dozen books, I highly recommend figuring out how your order tracking system, whatever you're using, can produce addressee labels as well. Hand writing this crap is error prone and painful. Avoid it if at all possible.

An ideal system has the buyer enter their address (and a good sales platform ought to be able to validate addresses to some degree, as well. Like, does the zip code match the city?) and that typed-in (validated) address is simply carried through and printed on a label. You stick on your return address label and the to-address label, done and done. Seriously, you can invest a LOT of work here and it'll be 100% worth it if you're shifting even 50 orders.

If you're shifting more than 100 books, talk to your post office about how you can automate more of this. Walking 100 packages over and working with a clerk to mail them one-by-one is madness. You can probably work with the post office to, I dunno, print magic barcodes or something that let you just dump off a pallet of packages. Figure it out, even if it's hard, it's gonna be worth it. Hand mailing 100 packages is a lot of work even with pre-printed address labels.

The money:

Firstly I am deleting all up-front costs (camera, computer, test books, cost of posters, cost of thumbtacks, fee for essay writing, etc etc) from consideration. Those are all out of my pocket. My cost to play the game. Depending on where you draw the line, I am eating a considerable cost here, and that is absolutely OK. This is a mission I believe in, and which gives me great pleasure.

My goal here was emphatically not to make money. In the first place, nobody makes any money at these things, and in the second place it felt like "making money" would take money away from artists who might actually need the money. Accordingly, I priced my book at my best estimate of cost, and as we shall see I pretty much nailed it.

I promised to give a thorough accounting of the money, and to donate profits (if any) to a local Arts charity. I still have to mail 4 books, 3 to Canada and 1 US, so I am estimating that cost. Here we go:

Mailers from ULINE: 100 mailers, total cost $112.41
Books from Blurb: 50 books, total cost $418.63
Postage: $238 (estimated, but within $5)

Per books cost is $1.12 + $8.37 + $6.43 = $15.92

Now, I botched the packaging on a few packages to Canada (wound up half an ounce over 8 ounces, and paid almost $10 each for the privilege — trimming the box down slightly saved me a bunch of money on later shipments) and a couple of these are really personal sales, so I am making a command decision to cover $60 of the postage out of my "own pocket" here. This reduces the postage to $178:

Per books cost is $1.12 + $8.37 + 4.81 = $14.30

This is pretty much the number I was shooting for, maybe a dollar high. Anyways, lots of people donated lots of extra money. Total costs as accounted above comes out to $529. Money raised through the gofundme was $860, of which $825.06 was transferred to me. This yields a "profit" of $296.06 which I feel pretty damned good about.

Notes: I did not count minor packing materials (tape, paper), nor did I "charge" for the 60+ mailers and extra books I now possess. Those are mine to keep! The US buyers subsidized the Canadian ones more than I intended, because I didn't really have a handle on how insanely expensive it is to mail things to addresses that are literally 30 miles from my front door. I hope nobody feels bad about that. It's all going to charity anyways and, honestly, I can't get that mad about giving the post office money. GoFundMe takes a pretty big bite, so don't feel obligated to "tip" them when they beg. They made $35 from this campaign.

Shortly I will be making a donation of $296.06 to Allied Arts of Whatcom County, huzzah.

Thank you one and all, and I hope all of you enjoy the book! Except you, David. You refused to order no matter how loudly I yelled, so you don't get to enjoy the book, you get to suffer in abject misery!

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Something to Look At

Here's a photo by Danny Lyon, from his series/book "Conversations with the Dead"

Dr. John Edwin Mason asked about the ethics of this photo, what public purpose it might serve. One does not, as a rule, take Dr. Mason's questions very seriously here, he is a man who possesses all the answers. His goal is to tacitly assert his wisdom and, if he rouses himself, to "educate" some people through the dialectic of scolding. Nevertheless, let us look at this photo, because I like it, and because it is new to me.

It's by Danny Lyon, first of all, of the outlaw motorcyclists and whatnot. I'm not particularly familiar with his work, he's just a guy I've heard of. His method was to embed pretty deeply, and to photograph that in which he was then embedded. According to his bio, he spent some time behind bars involuntarily, and was given for this project remarkably broad access to the Texas carceral system.

Naturally, he claims that he was friend with all the prisoners and they backed his every move etcetera etcetera, the usual things one says (and perhaps even believes) when one is doing this sort of thing. It might even be true. Anyways, this is very much a modern approach, and is exactly what Dr. Mason and his cronies say all photo projects should be like. You can research the project yourself if you like but there seems to have legitimately been a lot of inclusion of the subjects in the work.

Lyon positions himself as a semi-insider, translating the insider world-view for us outsiders.

This is done in the late 1960s, despite the modern methods.

Ok, let's actually look at this thing, though.

In terms of formal structure it's quite rich and really rather beautiful. You can deconstruct it as a 2 dimensional arrangement of tonal forms, and the answer is pleasing with some graceful curves and contrasts and whatnot. You can deconstruct it as a 3 dimensional arrangement of forms, and you get another pleasing answer of near-far relationships and the same graceful curves. I am rather taken with the white line of water at the far man's feet.

As a graphical object, it's very much worthy of hanging on a wall (though I'd prefer more aggressive dark tones) but obviously the subject matter makes that a little dicey.

Onwards to the subject matter.

It's a couple of dudes showering in a very institutional communal shower. This could be the local YMCA, but it's more likely something else. The men have very very short hair, consistent with the military or the carceral system. Possibly some sort of medical facility. In these modern times, tattoos have become meaningless, but if we guess that this photo is older, the tattoos suggest that the subjects are not upper-middle-class.

It feels like a prison photo, and indeed it is.

The Madonna on the near guy's back is a sort of poignant visual joke, and is probably why Lyon shot this, or at least why this photo makes the cut.

The men themselves are not particularly posing themselves in any graceful way; one simply stands there fore-square washing his skull, and the near fellow works away at, well, something. Nevertheless, there is a real grace to the arrangement of their bodies, which creates a pleasing contrast. The plash of water, the motion blur of bodies, and the out-of-focus whatever-it-is lower left lend a powerful sense of vérité here.

It feels very real, it creates a strong sense of presence. You can practically feel the water, probably too cold; and smell the soap, probably unpleasantly medicinal.

This is, of course, the point. Lyon wants to create for you, the outsider, an accurate re-creation of the feeling of prison. He wants you to smell the soap, and freeze in the water. He's made a visually appealing picture that, ideally, appeals to you with its graphical strength and finishes you off with a visceral journey to the showers.

Dr. Mason asks about the ethics of shooting this.

I don't know what his actual point is, and he's the sort of fellow who sits back looking smug in preference to explaining, so we're kind of on our own here.

Probably he's noting that these men, the subjects, did not in any practical sense have a choice about being photographed in the nude. This is a real thing. The very best you can hope for is that they felt only a little coercion, and it's perfectly possible there's a guard just out of frame telling them he'll shoot them if they don't behave. I dunno.

I am inclined to take Lyon at least to a degree at his word, and assume that to some degree he's gained the trust of his subjects. Certainly these dudes don't seem to give a fuck that he's there, and Lyon is clearly very close indeed. But still, coercion is present here.

Not everyone thinks there is a legitimate calculus of whether or not coercion can be "worth it" if the value of the pictures is sufficiently high. I find these kinds of calculations a little dicey myself, but nevertheless there is little doubt that Lyon was aiming pretty high here. He was trying for high social value, revealing the truth of the system, of the existence behind bars.

He succeeds, here. It is not, to my eye, a stretch to suggest that this photograph reveals in a visceral and powerful way the humiliating lack of privacy that is inherent in every aspect of a carceral system. As these things go, there is pretty high social value here. Yes, there are probably people for whom this is highly stimulating pornography, there are people for whom this is "triggering" either literally or in the sense of inducing a long rant on social media. For the most of us, though, this is a kind of pseudo-experience which incrementally enhances our understanding of the lives of prisoners. This picture, mostly, enlarges the viewer to some moderate degree.

If that is not the social value of a photograph I am at a complete loss as to what else it might be.

Still, if you don't believe that you can "justify" coercion with social value, well, then this picture fails. You can't photograph in prisons at all, and that's that. Which is certainly a position, but also would tend to render the carceral system even more opaque to those of us who have thus far avoided being its guests.

You could probably also argue that the tattoo renders the man in the picture identifiable, and that outing him in this fashion is wicked and wrong. This would be a stupid argument, since a man's incarceration is a matter of public record already.

In general I cannot shake the idea that, however humiliating and unpleasant having some dude with a camera photographing you, it's a triviality when stacked up next to being incarcerated. I don't think these guys gave a shit. I think these guys had larger worries. This doesn't make robbing a guy who's already got cancer ok, of course. But it tends to shape the victim's perception, and to the extent that matters, it matters.

If I was Michael Shaw of "Reading the Pictures" I would probably find a Shoah reference here ("showers!") and somehow work in the Madonna, and honestly it's probably not completely insane to do that.  Whether Lyon put that in there, some people will probably take it out. You could probably work in some references to Renaissance Painting if you worked at it a bit, and so on.

I think Lyon was just taking pictures of dudes showering, and picked out the best one. And I think it's a good one, and I think it serves his purpose.

A pretty sturdy argument can be made, and I think I made it, for fairly high social value in this photo. Whether or not that justifies whatever degree of coercion you guess at is essentially a personal question.

Good luck!