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Monday, February 28, 2022

On Collecting Digital Art

I have no interest in digital art, nor in collecting it, and I especially don't have any interest in anything connected to cryptocurrencies. Nevertheless.

Recent usage seems to suggest the verb "collect" being used to describe the purchase of NFTs. Possibly only some purchases, I don't know. Anyways, the verb is in play. That's interesting. It suggests to me that people who "buy" NFTs are generally coming to the conclusion that they're not buying the, uh, "art" that the NFT describes in a way that confers anything that resembles ownership. The don't own the art, they... something else the art. It's not clear what. They're settling on the word "collect" as far as I can tell.

This makes a lot of sense, actually, and seems to more accurately encapsulate the off-kilter quasi-but-not ownership concept the crypto shills keep hammering on about.

One "collects" experiences as well as artifacts. One might reasonably "collect" baseball players in the form of baseball cards. In this sense, to "collect" means something like to add to a list of things I am personally invested in. Baseball cards are particularly apropos, they are an essentially worthless piece of heavy paper with a picture and some words and numbers on it. They gain social value by their reference to a popular athlete. They gain monetary value through a combination of social value, and scarcity.

NFTs, by and large, are not backed by anything as meaningful as baseball, but whatever. Baseball is also just a social thing anyways, albeit one that employs a bunch of people.

This suggests that NFTs are insanely overpriced. They should default to a dollar, or a pound, and only special ones should reach high prices, and then only temporarily.

More to the point, though, it points out the absurdity of NFTs as currently designed. There is no ledger, immutable or not, for baseball cards or for experiences. The "blockchain" plays no important role here (as usual: all "blockchain" applications can be improved by removing the blockchain part, and NFTs are no exception. What's interesting is that, when you remove the blockchain, arguably there is something left.)

There is no reason in the world to have NFTs "on the blockchain" at all. If we want to generate a concept of "collecting" art as distinct from "owning" art, well that's fine and dandy. There's a lot of ways to do that, ways that don't involve any blockchains. You can get fancy with crypto, or the artist can just send you a friggin' email.

Obviously if you constructed this in a sensible way, there would be no opportunity to make vast sums of money doing basically nothing, so that's an issue for a lot of people involved in the space. But, if you're one of the few people who actually think it's about something other than taking a shitload of someone else's money and sticking it in your own pocket, there are other ways to do those other things that don't involved hanging out with a bunch of criminals.

All this stuff is just socially constructed anyway, right? Do you want bragging rights? Do you want a public record that you personally bought a thing? You can do this, it's not even hard, and you don't need a blockchain to do any of it. I'm not even a cryptographer and I can rough out the algorithms you could use to do all this shit cryptographically, "digitally native," without a ledger of any kind. You can do this entirely with self describing free-floating objects that you could encode as a QR code and print out on an index card.

Or the artist could just send you an email.

Blockchain shills tell you that things on the blockchain are permanent records, but they're not. They literally cease to exist when the miners stop generating them, and the miners will stop the moment the cryptocurrencies drop to zero, which they are guaranteed to do some day. A QR code on an index card will be readable in 500 years if you don't get the paper wet. Your NFT will literally cease to exist in your own lifetime, unless your time is very short indeed.

I think the idea of "collecting" as separate from "owning" is potentially interesting, in all its social ramifications, but by lashing it irrevocably to crypto-currency, the idea loses any chance of long term survival. Holding tight to the anchor is a fine until the ship goes down.

This is a problem.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Photo Law (Boobs)

The UK is currently working on a big Crime and Punishment Bill that everyone hates (technically it's the "Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill" no Oxford comma wtf?) but it includes a provision that some of the more stick-up-the-ass photo commentators love. This provision modifies the Sexual Offences [sic] Act of 2003 which currently has a section on up-skirt photography, by adding some equivalent provisions concerning the photography of breast-having people in the act of breast-feeding.

It's a bit of a swamp to dig through, because the legal documents in play are all "edit the previous legal document to include a script for editing yet another document" and the result has several pathways through it that describe an offence [sic].

Now, I don't much care about this law. It's arguably just an attempt to codify current social norms, which is good, I guess? It's an extension of the anti-up-skirting law, which has hardly ever actually been invoked. The new law is even thinner and less likely to be invoked. Most likely the UK will see one or two cases a year where someone freaks out about a dude with a camera, and almost all of those will get tossed because it will turn out to be insanely hard to meet the standards laid out in the law. My judgement is that this is a sop intended to marginally boost support for a wildly unpopular omnibus bill.

But what the hell do I know? I Am Not A Lawyer. Spelling the word "law" taxes me.

Still, there is an element I find interesting.

If I read this correctly, the following scenario is an offence [sic]:

Taking, without consent, a photograph of a breast-feeding person in public, which photograph does not reveal any bits and pieces of interest (no boobs, no nipples visible), specifically in order to masturbate wildly to said photograph later.

While is is certainly a social norm to frown upon this sort of thing, I think it opens genuinely new legal territory.

Most law, as far as I know, which restricts things photographic is built around either some normal expectation of privacy (that is, you're arguably not supposed to be looking there at all even without a camera) or around something to do with publishing (commercial or quasi-commercial uses of people's likenesses) or some combination (e.g. you're allowed to look there, but it's iffy, so you can't sell the photos.)

This is the first law I am aware of in which, if you merely remove the camera, the action is completely legal. You may look at a breast-feeding person, especially if you're not peeping at their body parts which would normally be covered (boobs, nipples) and if you want to masturbate wildly to that memory later, well, have at it I guess. It's not illegal to masturbate, in a lot of places.

This law takes an unambiguously legal situation and renders it illegal purely by the introduction of a camera to substitute for memory. You could, I guess, spin out some goofy hypotheticals "what if I have a retinal implant or some other device that I used for normal vision?" I think the law might actually make it illegal for someone with a retinal implant to look at a breast-feeding person if their intent is to get turned on. This would be kind of hilarious, but it's a sort of dumb scenario.

Am I arguing against the law? Not really, as I say, it merely codifies what already exists socially. Now instead of just yelling at the guy you're pretty sure is a creep, you can call a cop. The only difference is that — maybe — the cop will do something ineffectual.

Do I think it's the nose of the camel inside the tent? Well. Certainly the people who applaud this law tend toward theories of photography that kind of want to make it all illegal. The theory that switching from eyes to camera Causes Enormous Harm is very popular. It's not really a secret that a lot of photo commentators ultimately want to simply ban photography entirely if they can't figure out a way to prevent everyone except their friends from doing it. Authoritarian governments do love to authoritarian, and if they can find some dipshits to carry their water, they might double down!

This is, for instance, a legal theory that cops absolutely love. Sure, you can watch cops with your eyes all you want, but they would like nothing better than to propose that as soon as you introduce a camera, the formerly legal scenario becomes an illegal scenario. Cops are more or less constantly pushing for this one. In fact a lot of cops try to enforce this non-law all the time.

But do I really think that this law is, or will become, the beachhead from which a vast expansion will arise? Not really. I think this is a dumb sop to try to sell a rotten omnibus law, and that is the end of it.

The cops are going to get their version independently, because people keep electing jackasses.

Friday, February 25, 2022

On Photography Communities

This is probably just me trying to rationalize the fact that I'm not really a joiner. Probably also I'm reacting to stumbling over several recent attempts to form "communities" which appeared to me more about "audience capture" so I'm grouchy.

I'm not talking about just being friends with some people, or ephemeral events like portfolio reviews. I'm talking about things which are a sustained grouping of people around photography, photographs, and so on.

But anyways let's think about groups of people in general, let's say roughly structured around doing or making something. Could be photography, could be swing dancing. Doesn't matter.

The group is likely to coalesce around some pretty specific orthodoxy around how to do the thing. There are likely to be some opinionated voices willing to get a bit loud, a bit pushy, and people will generally find it easier to fall in line. Some people will just leave, either quietly or in a great uproar. Maybe the group was even formed around a very specific way to do whatever it is.

Regardless, the group is likely to define a more or less narrow envelope for how the thing is to be done.

If you are someone who flourishes within that narrow envelope, you're going to do great. The wiggle-room left within the envelope, whether a little or a lot, is maybe just what you need to express your vision. It's going to be awesome.

If you don't fit in, it's going to be hell. You're going to either capitulate to the orthodoxy, and find yourself not flourishing at all, or you're going to spend all your time fighting the orthodoxy, or you're going to leave.

If what you have is a collaboration of 3 artists, you probably came together around a vision anyways, and there's a pretty good chance it's going to work out wonderfully for all involved. Yay!

The more it's an ad hoc group that's just "about photography" or whatever, the more likely it is that some will flourish, and others will not.

You could, for instance, probably make a fairly sturdy argument that Group f.64 was dominated by a couple of pushy assholes (Adams and Weston) and that the orthodox vision was set to that particular modernist style that's clearly visible in the work of both. The people who couldn't or wouldn't do quite that, although perhaps they rejected Pictorialism, didn't flourish. Which is why everyone today thinks "Ah yes, Adams! Weston! And.... um. Cunningham?" and doesn't know anyone else.

Conventional wisdom is some combination of "well, women were oppressed" and "Adams and Weston were more talented" which, ok, whatever. I'm not going to argue, but I think the dominant orthodoxy may well have played a role as well.

I don't know the group dynamics of the Photo-Secession as well, but damn if their shit doesn't all look pretty much alike, and Paul Strand had a bit of a go of it fighting that when he turned up in the Stieglitz orbit with his not-at-all mushy photos.

It's human nature, right? Like hangs out with like. But at the same time, like encourages like, and discourages unlike. It's not a bad guess to suggest that maybe the Photo-Secession guys were not all "totally valid, just not our cup of tea" with Strand, but rather "you suck, get out of here." I don't recall the details, but I do think there was a fair bit of shade thrown when "Camera Work" started to feature Strand's photos. And that audience had been warmed up already with a bunch of Rodin drawings, of all things.

To this end, I think, "collaborations" tend to work better than just ad hoc collections of "photographers who get together to discuss photography."

The collaboration begins with a vision, and a set of people with a reasonable chance of flourishing within it. The ad hoc group does not start with a common vision, but will (usually) create one, and only some members will flourish within it. All too often, those people will be the pushy assholes. As a pushy asshole, I can't get behind that.

But in the end, it's not really a "collaboration" versus "ad hoc" distinction. It's just a recognition that groups produce orthodoxies, and if as an artist the orthodoxy doesn't work for you, it doesn't work for you.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Vigilante Press

I thought I'd take a moment to make a note of all the positive mentions Vigilante has gotten!

The most important art and photography site on the internet gave me a mention and a compliment: How Much?

James Cockroft's excellent blog: Andrew Molitor — 'Vigilante'

Daniel Milnor's also excellent blog: Create: Vigilante, A Zine from Andrew Molitor

And a sort of side mention from Jonathan Blaustein: Making a Book

That last also has a lot of fairly broad information about ways to make a book. It's a good general piece that was widely read.

I regret that I have no negative reviews to share. I was holding out hope for one, but they seem to have decided it's not worth the trouble. Or maybe they only like to write positive reviews. If you know of a negative review, or would like to write one, please let me know! There are probably things that would delight me more, but I would very much enjoy linking to a really good trashing.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Everything, All The Time, Everywhere

This is a book, not really about photography, although some photographers are mentioned. I intend to review it here, for several reasons, not the least of which is that negative criticism is fun to write, and fun to read.

I first ran into this thing on Jörg Colberg's newsletter. He loved it, for reasons that I daresay will become fairly clear. Later, I ran into our friend James Cockroft angrily providing live criticism. He offered to swap me a book he hated (this one) for one I hated (Tulsa, OK) and I agreed, wanting very much to rid myself of the latter. James has published his review of the latter, in which he says nice things about me, so obviously I think it's a simply tremendous piece of criticism (but no, in all seriousness, he's got hold of some stuff I missed, and it was an interesting read.)

But, onwards. A guy named Stuart Jeffries wrote this thing, he's some Guardian writer, which apparently means that he's guaranteed a positive review in the Guardian, which means that his audience knows what to think and duly thinks it. The subtitle of the book is "How we became Postmodern" which gives you maybe a little more information about what the hell it's on about.

The book is trying to make the case that, well, it's not clear what. There's something about neoliberal capitalism, and something about postmodernism, and something about some sort of relationship between these two. The clearest maybe-statement of a thesis is near the end, and is something like "postmodernism is the cultural handmaiden of neoliberal capitalism" which seems to mean something, but doesn't really. It's just, again, a sort of vague statement of some sort of relationship.

First I will give you the secret code, and then we'll take a look at a few bits and pieces of the book to give you the flavah as it were, and also make fun of some people.

The book contains 335 pages of body text, and references 388 separate people. It also references some events, buildings, bands, and so on. This pretty much tells you what is going on here. The book is a relentless tsunami of superficial references. The game is to see how many of the references you "get." If you are the right sort of not-terribly-bright pseudo-intellectual, you'll "get" most of it, because you're kinda read a lot of the source material. It doesn't matter if you really read it, or if you skimmed it, or if you read the wikipedia on it, because the references are wildly lightweight. It's only very slightly above pure namedropping. Since you're not very bright, you won't notice how shallow it all is, and you'll feel Very Clever because you know who Wittgenstein is. Or at least you recognize the name.

You certainly will not be required to know anything about Wittgenstein's ideas, because Jeffries will give you the gloss for the one tiny bit he's going to more or less randomly sprinkle onto the page, and since nothing connects to anything, it doesn't matter if you can't even follow that.

This thing is really very well crafted to appeal to a sort of Twitter-liberal, the dopey leftist who complains about neoliberalism capitalism without having any notion of what it is beyond some sort of boogeyman that has, somehow, prevented me from getting the sweet academic endowed chair that I deserve.

Whether Jeffries actually understands anything he's written in here is unclear. The citations are simply too short and too shallow to be sure. The whole book feels like it could have been titled You would not believe how much Wikipedia I read last summer.

So now you know why Colberg liked it. He's bang in the middle of the audience this thing is crafted to extract money from, and lo, it extracted a small sum and a positive review from him.

Let us look at the book itself.

It opens with an effort to tell us what neoliberal capitalism and postmodernism are. Since these words, in common usage, basically don't mean anything, the field is wide open. Rather than trying to refine things, to narrow the focus down to some specifics, Jeffries embraces the chaos. He offers us multiple conflicting snippets of discussion about everything, creating a kind of vague and incredibly broad space in which to work. Sometimes in this section he's quoting someone talking about postmodernism as a set of ideas, sometimes he's quoting someone telling us about postmodern culture, and Jeffries doesn't seem to notice or care that the target is bouncing around. It doesn't matter, see above on the secret code. Nobody is paying attention, they're just waiting to see if they'll get the next reference.

Jeffries is at some pains to make clear, he drags out Wittgenstein for this, that postmodernism as an idea is Very Elusive and there might not even be a core set of characteristics that make a thing postmodern. If this sounds a lot like "postmodernism is whatever the hell I want it to be" to you, well, you're not alone, and that is precisely how it plays out. Anything can be postmodern, and anything capitalist that Jeffries doesn't like can be neoliberal.

Notably lacking throughout is postmodernism as a set of actual ideas, you know, the things we actually think of as postmodernism. The whole business of truth being a bit less concrete than we thought, the bit about maybe the author's intentions are maybe less central to understanding, all those things are kind of swept aside. What we're left with is that idea that postmodernism is irony and/or pastiche and/or reinvention and/or whatever else Jeffries needs it to be on this page.

Bowie is postmodern because he took on many different roles, and also was commercial (neoliberalism!!1111!!19781721!!!!) Koons is postmodern because he's ironic. Hip-hop is postmodern because it's pastiche. Etc etc.

The structure of the thing is a bunch of chapters each covering three apparently disparate topics. The Sex Pistols; Margaret Thatcher; Jean-François Lyotard! The apparent aim of each chapter is to tie the three things together, in unexpected ways. It's something like the horrible meme that the space shuttle boosters are the width of two horses asses because Roman roads that James Burke's TV show "Connections" endowed us with, but to be honest, the book does not rise even to the level of that TV show.

Let us examine some specifics.

Early on, we are treated to some "shock doctrines" one of which is the USA's exit from the Gold Standard under Richard Nixon. This, we learn, paved the way for modern neoliberal capitalism. Jeffries gives us some macroeconomics, sketching the origin of the Gold Standard, the reasons for leaving it, and the consequences of same. He does this in 11 pages. To propose that this might be a little thin is to somewhat understate the case. We get, essentially, a single thread of narrative, a linear telling of "this happened, which caused this to happen, which caused this, and here we are!"

We don't need to know anything about the facts of the case to know this is trash. Nothing of this sort ever happens for reasons tellable in a neat linear fairy tale. It is invariably far more complex. There is never a single coherent thread that leads from the beginning to the end.

Maybe Nixon's choices here did pave the way for neoliberal capitalism, but certainly Jeffries doesn't know, and he hasn't told us anything that ought to make us believe any such thing.

Colberg specifically called out the Sex Pistols/Thatcher chapter, saying these two things "have more in common than you'd think" so I read that chapter twice to be sure.

Maddeningly, Jeffries seems to think the Pistols can be meaningfully taken as representative of punk, which would get him beaten up by any actual punks, and would have done in 1976 as well. The Pistols were always an act, a commercial operation with a sell-by date, intended to sell out as soon as possible. Vicious and Rotten may not have been totally on board with it, but fuck them, they were not driving. The whole thing was obviously a cynical pop-culture commercial enterprise from day one, and virtually the antithesis of almost literally everything else in punk.

<deep breath>

Anyway, Jeffries does get the commercial sell-out part right, and since this is one of the many many things that can be "postmodern" he identifies the Pistols as postmodern which, ok, I guess.

Moving on, he gives us a sketch of Thatcher and all her terrible ideas, and identifies her as "neoliberal" which I think is actually, for once, correct. Thatcher is almost literally the poster child for neoliberal capitalism, and widely accepted as such.

Ok, so these two have more in common than you'd think, right? Right?

Why yes. They're both rebellions against pale stale males that took place in 1976.

That's it. That is literally 100 percent of the connection Jeffries draws. I mean, he talks about them right next to each other, and there's an opening section to the chapter where he talks about the Pistols, Thatcher, and Lyotard, all at the same time and stuff. But the only actual connection he draws is "rebellion in 1976."

The book goes on and on like this. There's 10 chapters of 3 things each, and in each case the 3 things don't have much of anything to do with one another besides happening at sort of the same time. The postmodern things are rebellious, or cynical, or pastiche, or whatever. It doesn't matter, everything is postmodern. Anything to do with economics or money can be neoliberalism. And, sure, there's been a lot of economics and pastiche between 1970 and now, so, there you are! See? SEE?!

In the end, all Jeffries manages to demonstrate is that neoliberalism and postmodernism are more or less contemporaneous, and that both have, if you squint, some kind of relationship to modern consumerism. Along the way he offers up 30 sketches of things, people, events, sketches so brief, slanted, and superficial that they almost certainly damage your understanding of whatever they are.

There is no conclusion, there is no argument, there is no thesis. Jeffries tells us that some people thing postmodernism ended on Sept 11, 2001, but that other people disagree. Jeffries offers no opinion on the matter, or any theory or description of postmodernism that might guide the way. He just shrugs.

But if in your life you've kind of skimmed Barthes, Wittgenstein, and Hegel, if you're that kind of "New Yorker" reader you probably fell for it.

5 stars! two big thumbs up! would read again!

Saturday, February 19, 2022

The Anatomy of the Nude

In someplace I frequent (slum) someone I don't respect recently asked about nudes, essentially asking why most of them are so tawdry. He got a lot of answers like "Weston was a master" and "read Paglia" and the inevitable "female gaze wot wot" but nothing actually on-point because photographers, for the most part, don't have any ideas.

It did occur to me that this is a topic I have not revisited in a while, as my thinking about photos has evolved and changed, so now seems like a reasonable time to approach it again.

Unless otherwise stated, the gender of the subject doesn't matter in this discussion.

Confronted with a photo of an unclothed person, we enter the scene in the photo in some way. We are in a sense present and in the presence of an unclothed person. One naturally wonders why this person is unclothed.

The obvious answer, and this usually is painfully obvious, is that it is because the model has removed their clothing at the behest of a photographer, for the purpose of being photographed. In these cases, we must set aside this story, suspending our disbelief as we would for a movie or a novel, and proceed into the fictional story we're being asked to partake of.

At this point we can begin to enumerate possibilities. I think it is fair to suppose that it's enough to simply articulate possibilities, the details of converting a description into a photo are essentially technical (acting, direction, lighting, etc.) and to be honest I don't much care.

The first and most obvious story is that the subject of the photograph is sexually available. Possibly to me, the viewer, but also possibly not to me. Perhaps the point is that the model is sexually available but explicitly not to me. This is the fiction embedded in almost every nude photograph, this is the point. This is what we think of as tawdry or shallow, even though there's no particular reason to suppose any such thing. Sex is a pretty big deal.

It is here that the gender differences arise in a big way. Sex is asymmetrical, both physically and politically (yes, yes, with certain exceptions) and so the nude woman, presented as sexually available, is different from an equally available man. So be it.

Photographers who want to be seen as serious, or who are genuinely just not much interested in the sexually available subject, can deploy a bunch of strategies to negate the story of sexual availability.

You can stand the model atop a rocky pinnacle, place them pensively in a snowy landscape, depict them in the throes of athletic strain, or simply put them in a box. All these things can be mechanics which disrupt or negate the notion that the model is sexually available. Frequently they're just weird. The main trope here is to negate the sexual availability by replacing it with a mystery. Why is she sitting down in the snow? Why is he rock-climbing naked?

Another option is the candid, or the faux candid. The model is shown to us in a natural state of non-sexualized nudity, and we as viewers are placed in the position of a voyeur. Nothing in the picture explicitly welcomes us into the scene, we're not supposed to be there. Therefore the model is not presenting themselves as sexually available — they are "not aware" of us. This tends to be a little creepy, but can be charming if we can manage to set aside our role as voyeur.

But the truly warm and non-sexual nude photo is a rarity.

Those of you who have been in relationships may have noticed that nudity is not strongly correlated with sexual availability. I venture to suggest that many close relationships, whether between sexual partners, or between a parent and a child, or even some close friendships, involve quite a bit of non-sexual nudity.

The genuinely intimate nude strives, I think, for that.

These nudes are not candid, but nor are they built around sexual availability.

In these photos, the model is engaged; the model "sees" you, as in any non-candid portrait. Sometimes the method is to place the model in a situation where they are more or less naturally unclothed, but engaged in something that makes sexual availability ludicrous. This does tend to blend over into the "stick the model somewhere weird" but there are ways to make it less weird. It is, I think, also possible to accomplish this without artifice, but the model has to be able to project pretty specifically.

Another trope to deploy here is to use unattractive models. Old men are rarely seen as sexually available, no matter how naked. Nudes of children, when not kiddie porn, are also a kind of "not sexually available" freebie.

Regardless of how accomplished, the model in these pictures is not specifically available for sex but is nevertheless unclothed. This implies an intimacy, a warmth, a closeness. We are present with a person who is open to us, who does not hide their body. Since they are not unclothed for the purpose of sex, they are not merely making their genitals conveniently accessible for use, and so perhaps we imagine that they hide nothing at all from us.

I think at this point, having articulated the situation, the mechanics perhaps come more easily.

We know the difference between the body language of sexual availability, and the other body languages. This is a problem of acting and direction. We know the tropes of porn, of candid photography, of the intimate portrait. Deploy them accordingly, in the proportions you're looking for.

Another great victory for the Molitor Presence Theory of photography.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Photography is Not a Language

One of the more common dopey aphorisms trotted out by "serious" photographers is that photography is a language. This is wrong, at so many levels.

First, in any sort of technical way, photography is not a language. While the definition of "language" is somewhat contested, absolutely nobody thinks that a pile of signs, in the semiotics sense, is a language. It just isn't. Vocabulary is not language, as anyone who has tried to learn a language from a dictionary knows. At best photography has a kind of vocabulary.

This is in fact what people mean: they mean you can print it dark, you can stick a crucifix in the frame, you can tell your model to grimace. These are all signifiers which point to something other than themselves, they are signs in the semiotic sense. I am at a loss for a better word than "language" to describe this, and so, apparently, is everyone else. You could argue that, imprecise as it is, "language" is the best word to describe this. More on this in a moment.

There is another possible meaning here, which is that a picture of a tree is not the tree. It signifies the tree, and is therefore a sign for the tree. This feels potentially interesting in a very technical way, but even Barthes couldn't actually make any hay here, so it's more likely a dead end. This is a technical curiosity, and in the end sort of dumb and uninteresting. We acknowledge that the tree (or frog, or model, or cloud) is not the photo of itself, but other than to note the obvious distinction there doesn't seem to be much there.

Ok, back to "language" as sloppy but maybe appropriate.

The trouble with accepting this as-is, is that it emphasizes the wrong thing. Yes, there are signs that can be added to, or managed, in a photograph, but this is a relatively bush-league operation. The main thing a photograph does is copy reality, preserve it in a limited kind of way, and allow us access to that pickled reality. The main thing you as a photographer do is select which bits of reality to do that to.

The idea of promoting photography as a "language" is part of a larger program to enlarge the photographer's role in the making of the photograph. It goes with the mealy-mouthed "photos are made, not taken," and it rubs up against ideas like "gaze." This set of ideas is very attractive to photographers, who generally want to see themselves as kind of like painters, imagining that Leonardo got laid a lot. It's also attractive to theoreticians who constantly seek grounds to expand the scope of their favorite activity, which is scolding people.

The conceit is that the photographer is visible in the frame, is speaking through the language of photography.

A photographer takes a picture of a cat, and I don't like the photographer. I can see in the photo the essential badness of the photographer. You can just tell, by signs, because photography is a language, that the photographer is a bad person who hates cats.

The idea that photography is a language is part of a larger system of thought which argues that we can and should see things in the photos which we know to be true outside the photos. It allows theoreticians to project things into the photograph which simply are not there. The idea that photography is a language is thus quite harmful to actual understanding of how photographs function.

Most of what we "read" in a photograph comes not from the photograph, not from some notional "language" or system of signs, but from ourselves, from the things we know, from the things we see around the photo, processed through ourselves and projected onto the picture.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

The Roots of Meaning

A few days ago one of the people I consider to be a basically superficial klout-farmer (but by no means the only one, god help us all) on social media made this remark:

If you don't ask questions, you won't get answers. If you don't listen carefully you won't understand the answers. Photography in a nutshell.

Now, forgive me, but I think if you're going to characterize some remark as "X in a nutshell" there should be at least some small thing that's specific to X in the remark. Asking questions and listening to the answers is a great idea, but it applies equally well to architecture, taco making, and photography.

I found this to be essentially glib nonsense, and said so.

To my astonishment, a chap who I consider to be quite thoughtful and intelligent charged up guns blazing and informed me otherwise! He unpacked it into a surprisingly lengthy treatise on diversity in photography, with a special emphasis on photojournalism!

Which, ok, fair enough. This is one of those glib epigrams upon which you can project anything at all, and it is indeed designed for that purpose. This is a dopey remark designed to let you project your own ideas onto it, and then subtly attribute those ideas to the fellow who made the remark, and conclude "what an intelligent fellow, he agrees with me on so much!"

I'd kind of like to throw some shade on the other fellow, the one who unpacked the remark into a treatise on diversity, but I really can't, and my heart isn't really in it anyways.

The point is that so much of the meaning we make of things comes from within ourselves. It's bonkers.

Given a profoundly open snippet of language, we can project pretty much anything we want onto it. We could interpret is as reminding us that we need to ask a lot of entomological questions, and listen to the answers, if we want to photograph bugs. We could interpret is at reminding us to be engaged and interested, when we're taking portraits. All of these interpretations, and infinitely many more, might well make this glib snippet feel smart and on-point.

But we're the ones bringing all the meaning. The words are just a trigger, a key that unlocks, and all the meaning was inside us already.

And so thus with a photograph, no? Especially a photo with no context. If we can make such hay out of mere words, with their relatively narrow and strict definitions, imagine what we might make of a photograph.

We see the window into a little world, and we fill it in, with things from inside ourselves. Not merely what's out of frame, or what happened next, but what the people in the frame are thinking, what the meaning of the actual frame contents. It's practically all us. The photographer can maybe guide, a little, can maybe hint, a little.

It makes the whole affair a bit daunting, some days.

Thursday, February 10, 2022


Brooks Jensen (I think it's him?) of LENSWORK linked here a few days ago, I think, and said some very lovely things about me in an audio clip attached to his link, that I make him think even (perhaps especially) when he doesn't agree with me. I won't say I teared up, but it was a damn near thing.

Thank you Mr. Jensen. It's always very nice to hear that I have succeeded. To make people think, without the necessity of agreement, is precisely the point. Of course it would be in a way great if everyone agreed with me, but while comfortable, that would simply be proof that I'm not trying hard enough.

My name, by the way, is Andrew Molitor. It should be somewhere in the maze of informational "Pages" accessible from the sidebar, but I can't honestly say quite where or if I'm 100% sure it's even there.

The British Journal of Photography

BJP was sold a few days ago. Sold, I should remark, again. It has been sold many times.

What makes this sale notable to me is that the sale is being touted by, uh, people on twitter, as a huge fraud, a Ponzi scheme, a criminal action, and so on. Let us just say libels have most likely been made, but in all probability nobody is going to pursue action against anybody.

Let us unpack the history of this! Why? Because it's fun!

In 2013 Marc Hartog led a management buyout of BJP. At the time, BJP was (I think) one many properties held by Incisive Media which was, and perhaps still is, a publisher of magazines. This was in the midst of some sort of transition to digital, Hartog had been leading or at least involved in the internal program to bring out digital editions of BJP.

Hartog created an empty company, Apptitude Media, and sold off 25% of it to investors for some money on the basis that he was going to buy BJP from Incisive. When the deal closed, Incisive held 15% of Apptitude, Hartog 60%, and 18 other investors held the 25%. Hartog almost certainly put in a significant investment of his own, but if and how much are privileged information. It would be normal for him to have put in a large chunk, though. Incisive likely got a chunk of cash, and 15% of Apptitude, and in exchange transferred BJP to Apptitude. Some of the invested cash would also have been used to provide operating capital for the new company.

At this point Hartog owned a majority stake in a company, Apptitude, that owned all the bits and pieces that make up BJP. The new company began to search for ways to make a photography magazine work as a viable, ideally large, business.

Many things were tried, I guess. I don't really know or care about the details, the point is that they don't seem to have worked. In 2016 they decided to try fundraising. They used the Crowdcube platform which, insanely, allows ordinary citizens to invest in private companies. The pitch was quite rosy, and valued the company at several million pounds which is, well, optimistic. As these things are. Financial statements were provided, which of course the punters who put in £10 to buy 68 shares almost certainly did not understand.

The point of this fundraising is obviously to create a little financial elbow room to try some stuff out. Whether you view it as money raised to try the new stuff, or money raised to make payroll while other money is used to try stuff is a personal choice. Money is fungible.

In 2016 they raised £399,720 by selling off %13.55 of the company to all comers. Half of this investment came from Stephen Henly and Jonathan Mitchell who invested £100,000 each and were duly appointed to the board of directors.

In 2018 there is essentially a repeat. They raised £779,510 by selling off %14.2 of the company (note that shares seem a lot cheaper this time around, the outlook, while still optimistic, is less optimistic!) In this round, Jahan Mobasher and Simon Bishop invested £100,000 each and were appointed to the board.

In 2020 there is yet a third round, raising £379,280 for a mere %5.44 of the company! The outlook was much rosier this time, somehow. Jonathan Woyton invested £200,000 (twice as much as necessary to get a board seat) and Joseph Phelan invested £100,000. Again, they were duly appointed to the board.

In all this fundraising a total of £1,558,510 was raised by selling off something like 30% of the company (you can't just add the percentages together, but roughly.) Of that, £700,000 was from people who became directors of the company. At some point in there Apptitude changed its name to 1854 Media.

So has there been fraud up to this point? I cannot see it. 6 separate people made enormous investments based on the rosy, optimistic pitches, and became directors of the company with access to everything. Having been a director, I can attest that this doesn't mean that they went through the books carefully, but they were on the inside, they did have fairly detailed, fairly accurate, financials read out to them, and they had at a minimum of a rough idea of what was going on.

I assume, I think reasonably, that at least a few of these 6 would have noticed something amiss and raised a fuss if there had been real malfeasance in the fundraising efforts, or in the company itself, up to now.

It is possible that there was something crooked going on, but if so it was very well hidden, or all these directors were In On It or something. As we shall see this, while unlikely on the face of it, is even less likely than you might think.

The high estimation of the company's value in January of 2020 seems peculiar, but I think they'd opened a bunch of initiatives which were about to get crushed by, um, a thing I have promised to not talk about.

By early 2021 they were thinking hard about NFTs, which makes me sad, but what are you gonna do? From a business perspective, it's not a terrible idea. Sure, people like me were saying NFTs were going to be a short-term fad, but plenty of people were saying the opposite.

At this point, early 2021, I think management has decided they are extremely short of options. The photography magazine business was not going well for anyone, virtually all the magazines have long since shuttered and the ones that are left were pretty small operations. At best the choice was between downsizing to a tiny but viable shop, or trying one more large-scale initiative to build a more substantial business. At worst it was a choice between closure and this last go-big attempt.

At this point the public financials were at least consistent with them borrowing money and selling more shares simply to make payroll. Combinations of selling shares and borrowing money is pretty normal at this stage of the game. You're simply trying to buy breathing room to figure out what to do.

Something has been made about the fact that the most recent share sales were at the previous, fairly rosy, price. Fun fact, you kinda have to sell them at the previous price. You can't just sell shares for whatever, because selling even one share at a price implicitly values the company. If I sell you a share for 1p, and there are 27M shares, I am stating that the company is now worth £270,000. You don't make moves like that on a whim (I'm not even sure it's legal?) So anyway of course the shares were sold for whatever the most recent share price was.

It's even money that former director Stephen Henly (see below) was the buyer for many of those shares, and possibly also the lender. This would be, at least, not unexpected.

So, in early 2021 they launched ART3.io, a platform for NFTs under the BJP brand, and whatever, it does something. It was successful enough to be interesting to Marc Hartog, at least.

By the end of 2021, a decision was made to spin out the ART3.io brand. Hartog once again created an empty company to contain the ART3.io bits and pieces (domain name, intellectual property, branding, assets, whatever.) At the begining of Fed 2022, former director Stephen Henly (who invested £100,000 in 2016) purchased the company (now called 1854 Media) in some sort of deal, probably not involving a great deal of cash, and Hartog left 1854 Media to lead the new ART3.io.

Oddly enough, what has social media afire is that Hartog seems to have acquired the BJP twitter account as part of the package. This twitter account was largely worthless, having about 250,000 followers and low engagement. For reference, that is not enough following to support one (1) influencer. By like an order of magnitude.

As part of the sale, a sum of £50,000 was provided to pay out the shareholders. All 27 million-odd shares. This is privileged information, but has been publicized widely by, um, irresponsible people. It's the sort of private information you don't seriously expect to stay private, though.

The guys who bought 38 shares for £10 are not gonna be very happy with their 7p and that's understandable. Note, though, that Mitchell, Mobasher, Bishop, Woyton, and Phelen will be getting a few hundred pounds back for their much, much, much, larger investements. And let us recall that these men have lawyers.

Again, is there fraud at this point?

It certainly is being pitched by, um, individuals, as some sort of "someone ran off with all the money" situation, but there's no evidence that there was any money. The publicly available financials indicate debt, rather than cash.

No matter how I slice and dice it, there just doesn't seem to be any way any meaningful pile of money ever accumulated in this thing. In fact, I can't see how any money at all actually accumulated. It's possible that all the filings are completely fraudulent, but at this point we're assuming a conspiracy involving a whole bunch of people, and the fraud would have to be fairly monumental to even give the 6 directors their £700,000 back.

While, I suppose, theoretically possible, I am having trouble visualizing how a massive fraud fits inside a photography magazine, a business type not noted for have vast revenue streams to hide money in. You might as well propose that BJP was just a cover for a massive drug dealing operation, and that there are millions in illicit fentanyl money lying around, at which point we really seem to have lost the thread?

People are mad because they lost their money, and sure, I get it. That sucks. They clearly had no idea what they were getting into, and feel lied to. That's kinda on them, but also kinda not.

Other people are mad because Hartog acquired a twitter account on terms that are definitely not known, and are much more likely reasonable and fair than otherwise. Which, ok, those are just crazy people I guess?

Yet other people are mad because of the NFT connection. I think NFTs are dumb and bad too, but these are business decisions, and as business bets go, that one doesn't seem any dumber than the underlying "let's run a photography magazine" idea.

There's literally no room anywhere in here for any kind of actual fraud or malfeasance. To seriously propose that, you have to assume that all public information is simply falsified, which seems dicey to me.

But, in the end, nobody is seriously proposing that, they're simply performing for social media klout, or because they're upset, or because they're bullies.

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

God Damn It

If his social media is any indication, Jörg Colberg is financially against the wall. I disagree with him about everything, but this should not be taken as an indication that he's actually wrong as such. It certainly doesn't mean he's not doing anything of value. He tackles interesting questions from time to time, with tools that I consider inadequate, but again that's my opinion.

He personally dislikes me, which would make any attempt from me to support him at least embarassing. Also, I have no need for any of the several things he offers, so anything I did for him would be purely charity and my charitable giving is very structured and does not include writers that dislike me.

Nevertheless, he offers consulting services of various kinds at ludicrously low prices. He has a book and perhaps some prints you can buy. He has a Patreon.

Some of you may reasonably find genuine value in some or all of this. We're still friends if you do. If you've been thinking about it but not committing, I think now might be the time.

Colberg's Patreon: here
Consulting: here
You can contact him directly to buy shit or whatever: jmcolberg (at) gmail.com

Honestly, I am tense and irritated now. I don't want to be panhandling for this fucking guy, but I cannot in good conscience let him starve without at least making a slight effort.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Something to Look At

Ran across this photo today. This are police officers lined up along 5th Ave for the funeral of a fellow officer, Wilbert Mora. Pretty sure the photographer is Mark Peterson (he posted it online, and didn't give an explicit attribution to anyone else, so I assume it's him:)

So what do we see?

An anonymous uniformed figure, foreground. Back turned to us. Shoulders square, one might suggest a vaguely military posture. Facing that figure, a loose formation of what are recognizably police officers. Perhaps because we see more of their bodies, they seem a hair less military. The mood is somber, the expressions are serious. Row upon row of uniformed men, rendered in stark black and white.

Behind them, a skyscraper vanishes off the top of the screen. To both sides, more cement buildings. Nothing is brutalist, but nothing seems aggressively art deco either. On the left, the word KORS over a shop window. On the right, more windows recede with writing above them.

There is a pretty heavy vignette, or at least the appearence of one. This focuses attention on the center, around the cap of the foreground officer (we assume it's a cop, the hat matches, etc), and lends, at least to my eye, a little flavor of "old black and while film" which is supported by the rest of the technical details of how the photo is handled (high contrast, very deep blacks, etc)

What we are in fact looking at is Rockefeller Plaza, we're looking across 5th Ave into the Plaza. The building in the background is Rockefeller Center. The KORS is of course MICHAEL KORS and we are looking at shops selling luxury brands, lining the Plaza. We are looking directly in to, if not the heart, at least one of the hearts of the American Capitalist Dream. The buildings are in fact considered to be Art Deco style. The photographer, ingeniously, eliminates any central features of the plaza by hiding them behind a big hat. There's probably a big dopey sculpture of some sort back there, which might rather ruin the mood.

Now, where have I seen row on row of uniformed figures juxtaposed with large Art Deco concrete structures. Hmm. Hmmm.

Oh! I know! A little film out of Germany made by Leni Riefenstahl! Triumph of the something.

At this point, though, the ranks/masses of identical dark figures arrayed in front of impossibly large, often art deco, concrete structures is a movie trope, and it never means that we're having a fucking birthday party.

So what do we make of these cops? Well. The mood is serious, the visuals are definitely Heroic Realism. We have a subtly lowered angle of view, we have massed power, we have the largeness of the anonymous cop foreground, we have the buildings vanishing off the top of the frame. It's all big, it's all power.

It's black and white, it's dark, it's high contrast.

You could certainly see this as a somber heroism, an ode to a fallen soldier. You'd have to be.. slightly tone deaf? Or kind of authoritarian? Maybe? I dunno, I feel like you'd have had to been rooting for the bad guys in an awful lot of movies, but maybe.

If you're me, of course, you go "holy shit, could you possibly make these guys look more like Nazis?"

Which opens up a meta-analysis, why the fuck would you go to such lengths to make cops look so bad? Or is the photographer? I don't even know!

I think this is a photo that could easily go in a bunch of directions. "Cops! Fuck Yeah!" or "ACAB and Nazis too!" or "Why you so harsh on our cops, dude?" or "how dare you make those Nazis look so heroic!" and maybe more.

This is a picture that I think could go any which way, and it pretty likely to give several different audiences exactly what they way. In a way there is a kind of mad genius to it, I guess.

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Oh no! Not the Negatives!

This story is getting a little traction. In a nutshell, an auction house sold a couple of NFTs of some photos. They packaged the NFTs with a print and the original glass plate negative in appealing frames, and included a small brass hammer, and invited the buyer to "make the object permanently digital" by smashing the glass plate.

Fundamentally you're buying: a print, a glass negative, a hammer, and a bunch of fairy dust/hype.

This was remarkably successful, they sold the two for more than $125,000 (if that's NZ money which is not clear at all, about $USD85,000.) This NFT hype machine is great!

Now, I oppose NFTs and all things crypto. These things are stupid, they are basically scams, they are objectively bad for the world and for almost everyone involved. Still, this particular one is hilarious.

It is hilarious specifically because of the reaction it has generated from Serious Photography People. I saw one person angry that you'd destroy "our" history, and of course there is a general outcry about the destruction of negatives. There is, of course, no particular reason to suppose the buyer will smash the negative.

But let us think on this a bit more. This is basically a rehash of the fetish that surrounds negatives.

The subject of these photos, Charles Goldie, is what one might call a minor artist. His paintings are notable enough to be worth forging (apparently) but he's not exactly in the pantheon. The paintings go, generally, for low six figures. On another day, the people so angry about this auction would probably complain that it's all money laundering, but today, Goldie is a Very Important Historical Figure. So he's not a nobody, but he's not really an important somebody. The photos in question have been, in various forms, "in circulation" so they are notable depictions of a minor notable person.

Basically these negatives are not worthless trash, of $5 thrift store finds, but nor are they uber special. A fan of Goldie's might buy one for small real money. Say, $1000. That would be kind of a niche sale, but maybe it would be doable.

The brutal truth is that negatives like this have no substantive value. They are in no meaningful way history, nor are they important to our understanding of anything. Whether they survive another 100 minutes or another 100 years literally nobody is ever going to print from them again, except possibly as a stunt. Thus, they have no direct utility. Excellent scans exist (largely because of this auction) and we don't need any more. Probably we don't in any meaningful way even need those. In any future where the scans are lost, nobody cares about a minor kiwi painter.

These negatives are, essentially, collectible fan objects, and that's it.

It speaks volumes that the critics of this seem to think (sometimes) that there is a museum involved (there is not) or that the museum will be smashing the negatives (no museum, and the seller isn't smashing anything) and so on, despite the reportage on it being invariably short items that describe the situation with perfect clarity.

I am doubly amused that the fetishization of the negative is being done here largely by people who shoot digital.

The fetishization of negatives is dopey and leads mainly to comedy fun.