Saturday, April 30, 2022

Something to Look At

Here's a photo:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Something to Look At

Here's a photo:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Let's Read This!

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

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

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

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

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

Set these things aside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Identity changes the stories that we tell.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

"Light and Shadow"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fred Kramer - The Handbag

Miroslav Hák - Face in the Shadow

Jindřich Brok - Karlovy Vary Glass

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

Petr Zora - Weekday

Josef Tichý - Exhibition

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

Moving on to more overt Realism:

Dr. Jelena Látalová - Help-mates

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

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

The book opens with this picture:

Jaroslav Tejnksý - Symphonic Poem

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

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

Magdalena Robinsonová - The Mountains Awake

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

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

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

Václav Jírů - At The Crossroad

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

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

Friday, April 8, 2022

Damn It

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

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

Hoist a beverage for JG, anyways.

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Something to Look At

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ok, so what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fourth, why is the handwriting so childish?

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

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

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

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

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

The response is universal: OMG how awful canyouimagine

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 4, 2022

Photography's Place in Media

I read McLuhan's Understanding Media so be prepared for an endless series of articles in which I attempt to become a Canadian Philosopher.

More to the point, the way I make sense of ideas is that I try to apply them to contemporary problems that are of interest to me, so as to see how the ideas might be shaped to my use. Accordingly, I will be attempting some McLuhan-esque approaches to things. Buckle up, eh?

McLuhan is famous for two things: the first is the statement that "the medium is the message" which most people seem to think means "TV sucks and so anything anyone says on TV also sucks" which is completely wrong, and also very uninteresting. The second phrase for which he is known is the "global village" which may or may not raise its head in what follows here. I read the book seeking to more fully understand the medium/message thing, and found a fair bit of borderline lunatic — but very interesting — material.

The basic conceit is that the form of media shapes the culture that consumes it. A culture that watches TV is shaped by that fact, independent of the actual content of the TV shows they watch. This is not to suggest that the content plays no role, but McLuhan does seem to think that the role of content is in meaningful ways secondary to the role of form.

A brief sketch.

McLuhan believed that the invention of the phonetic alphabet, the fragmentation of speech into individual sounds divorced from words and from meaning, and the method of visually lining these sounds back up in linear patterns to recreate speech, was an absolutely seminal idea in pretty much the next several thousand years of human history. He feels that this idea of fragmenting, and then reassembling by sequence, originates in the concept of alphabet but inspires mechanization through the printing press, and up to the factory assembly line. He seems to think the connection is causal, which strikes me as very iffy. The idea that there's some connection, though, strikes me as credible.

Indeed, while he doesn't quite state it, he seems to think that the very idea of the phonetic alphabet inspired and supports the idea of logic, the idea of an argument as a series of sentences, each one following from the previous, leading to a conclusion.

In more recent times, we developed what McLuhan lumps together as "electric" media: the telegraph, the telephone, the television, the computer. These accelerated the linearization process to the point that it reversed. He has a complicated theory which I confess I did not entirely follow, that when the elements of a medium accelerate sufficiently there naturally is a reversal of effect. The general effect strikes me, again, as iffy. Nevertheless, he makes the specific case around "electric" media pretty well.

In this case the reversal was a retreat from the linearization, the mechanization, of everything and a movement toward a holistic, impressionistic, all-at-once world. Factories became synchronized meshes of production, rather than a simple line in which each step was gated by the previous and the next.

The telegraph, by spreading news quickly and widely, resulted in the modern newspaper format, the grid or mosaic of unrelated news items. No more the book's strict front-to-back of alphabetic fragments in single file, but rather the mosaic of various fragments, to be sampled, dipped in and out of, and so on.

The TV, McLuhan seemed to think, is characterized by the fact that, essentially, it is blurry. It's a very small collection of dots of color and tone, pulsing across a small screen. Actors on TV behave, as a consequence, differently from film actors. The low resolution of the screen draws us in and makes us work harder as viewers, and as a consequence the actors need to back off, and be cooler, calmer, more neutral. Again, this seems a bit lunatic, but makes a certain sense.

What McLuhan would make of HDTV is unknown, but there are hints that he would consider it a completely different medium.

There's a lot more to the book, but that's the flavor of it, or at any rate the flavor of what I extracted from it. Let us move onwards, trying to maintain a kind of McLuhan air to our thinking.

In the 1990s, after McLuhan's death, the world wide web arises. The inventors of it promote the hyperlink, the clickable footnote. I think that they really imagined it as a kind of fancy footnote, rather than as the core mechanic of the web. I have always hated hyperlinks, because (I think) I dimly recognized the problems they would create. Fundamentally, the hyperlink prevents any thought from ever being completed.

At this point it's a joke, a trope, that spending any time on wikipedia leads you into an endless morass of clicked links, far from whatever you were looking for initially. You never actually read much of anything on wikipedia but the first paragraph or two, before you are seduced away to another page by a link, and there you read the first paragraph or two, before...

Web sites aped the newspaper, with a grid of possibilities, sometimes only a single column, sometimes more. The web, like the TV, is intensely interactive. You're clicking constantly. With the modern smart phone you're scrolling, zooming, clicking, all with your hands, in an intensely tactile experience. You are absorbing "content" as much with your fingers as with your eyes, and everything is endlessly fragmented but non-linear.

McLuhan would likely remind us that the tactile sense is holistic, we grasp things partially but all at once, as a singular thing, when we run our hands over it. This in contrast to the scanning eye, which is bound to the passage of time, to motion. We pet our dog and she simply is, she's there. When we watch the dog, we're conscious of her motion through space, her motion through time.

The web, I think we could argue, we treat more as a whole, a tactile and impressionistic medium, rather than a linear, temporal, medium.

Social media amplifies all this again (but not, alas, to the point of McLuhan's reversal of effect, as far as I can tell.) We now consider anything more than 100 words or so to be "long form", we're incentivized to interact, to like, to subscribe, to share. We click and click and click for the rewards, for the new content. We're constantly touching the phone, massaging dopamine out of its slick surface, a direct pipeline from fingertips to brain.

Alarmingly, social media incentivizes lying. I am increasingly convinced that almost everything we see on social media is a lie, or at least a stretched truth. You can probably describe a half dozen story formats that a person can put on social media to produce engagement, and at some point you begin to suspect that at least some of them are fabrications. Parts of reddit are notoriously almost all fiction. Whenever I see a tweet of the form "you'll never believe what happened to me... " followed by some canned story about how awful whatever is, I assume it's made up, even though some of the stories are probably true because whatever is actually sometimes awful.

Online, our dominant form of media, therefore, is fractured, impressionistic, anti-rational, and filled with lies. In short, structurally, it resembles propaganda in every detail. It's propaganda we're generating by ourselves, for ourselves. The social media companies have algorithms that teach us how to do it better, by rewarding us when we propagandize effectively. The algorithms reward anything that produces engagement and lies are always peppier than truth, impressions are more appealing than logic, glib aphorisms are more consumable than essays.

The content doesn't matter. I don't care if you're plugging Ivermectin, anti-Semitism, or Biden for President, it all works exactly the same. The idea that any of this is rational, logical, is simply ludicrous. That horse left the barn, quite a while ago, and is somewhere up in the hills far beyond the ken of man. We're living in an age of impressions, of propaganda.

We see this in academic and pseudo-academic writing. This is, fundamentally, where people like Jörg Colberg are coming from. Where I expect a linear argument, where categories are well defined and things are shown to be either in, or not in, a category, what I get is instead an impressionist collection of ideas and facts that all point in a particular direction.

To show that a Jew is human, I define what characteristics define humanity, and then show that any Jew has each of those characteristics. The category of Jews is contained within the category of Humans. This Jew, being a Jew, must also be contained in the category of Humans.

To show that a Jew is part of a secret cabal that controls the world, I use a series of impressionistic fragments. A picture of a guy with a hooked nose, a picture of a pile of gold, a quote from someone, a made-up fact about people with names that end with -stein, and so on. It just makes sense that this Jew is part of the cabal! Right? RIGHT?!!

The first structure is linear, Enlightenment, thinking. Popularly, it is described as incurably "white" or "colonial" or "privileged." The latter follows the form of modern media, of the social web, of the telegraph and the telephone. It's a mosaic of fragments. It is, by the standards of the widely derided Enlightenment thinking, objectively wrong, but whatever. By the standards of modern media its rightness depends entirely on where we land on the political spectrum.

You could just as well make an impressionistic argument about the evils of neoliberal capitalism, and lord we sure see a lot of 'em. They are structurally just as idiotic as the Jewish Cabal "argument" and therefore, by Enlightenment standards, just as wrong. They are nevertheless just as persuasive, albeit to a different demographic.

Like it or not, the latter mode is where we are. Our media is, structurally, propaganda, and that has infected a great deal our of communication. This is, essentially, the global village McLuhan refers to. It's not a touchy-feely happy village of Smurfs. It's a nasty little cesspit that runs on gossip, tradition, and lies. It's a grubby hamlet where witch doctors run the show, and sensible people are run out of town for arguing too much. McLuhan seems to have been kind of neutral about it, but I'm not sure he'd be real happy with where we've ended up.

My title promised a connection to photography, and so let's do that now.

In the early and mid twentieth century, we understood photography in a specific way. We carefully shot the scene, and then culled carefully down to the Best Images, and then we Printed those on paper and so on. The photograph was a carefully made singular object, to be revered and inspected closely. It was fitted into that Enlightenment, linear, mechanized, system of being. The idea was that it showed us Truth, and that we should accordingly inspect the picture carefully (or at least pretend to) and give it the respect it is due. Etc etc, there's a lot here.

The world in which this conception of the photograph arose is long gone. Yet, we still see photographers and photographic thinkers continuing to advocate for this kind of approach to photographs. Mike, over on ToP, got a thing in the New Yorker recently, which proposes a profoundly 1950s approach to the pictures you've got on your phone. He wants to show you how to redact the mass of photos to locate the Good Ones so that you can do that 1950s thing with those. In the language of my people: lol.

I am of roughly the same generation, and I am immensely sympathetic to this point of view. I like photographs in exactly the same way. I'm a little down on Fine Prints, but that's as much because of the finiteness of wall space as anything else. I adore the close inspection of the photo, more than almost anyone else on earth. Nevertheless, Mike and I are both wrong. We're completely out to lunch, in fact. This approach to photography is, for all practical purposes, dead. No, not dead, but a niche, a cul-de-sac. I'm happy to bang around in this cul-de-sac with all the other old folks, but it's not the modern world.

We might equally visualize it as a train. We can hop off anywhere, you may find that the 1950s photography suits you and hop off the train. Enjoy! The train, however, moves on. We are not going to reverse the train and park it in 1950, or 1890, or anywhere. The train will always move forward, probably quite fast.

The modern world of media, and therefore of photography, is one of impressions, of fragments, of lies, of propaganda. The photograph's role in the world today is literally to be glanced at. This is not changing, except to evolve forward to whatever it is that comes next. The train does not stop.

Look at the cat.Swipe.
Look at the big nose on that Jew.Swipe.
Look at the tulip.Swipe.

The idea of carefully redacting the photographs on your phone to find the Good Ones is ludicrous. Anyone with the desire and the will to do that is already doing so, everyone else is mildly uncomfortable with all the photos they're piling up, but whatever. Apple or Google will dredge a few up from a this date last year, or ten years ago, and we can glance at them again, and that's pretty much that.

The news photograph led the way here. After the novelty wore off, the news photo quickly fell into its modern role as reifying the textual part of the news story. There is a war in Ukraine, here is a photo of some blown up shit to prove it. The details of the news photo have not mattered for decades, perhaps almost a century. We've been glancing at them for my entire lifetime.

This now extends, via social media, to almost all photos everywhere. Everything on instagram, or flickr, or twitter, is a momentary impression. It reifies its caption, its description, and that's it.

It's a depressing point of view, if you're me, or if you're Mike Johnston, or if you're AD Coleman, since it utterly inverts everything we know and love about photographs and photography. Nevertheless this is where we are. Crying about it, railing at people to photograph more mindfully, writing think pieces about how you can kinda-sorta use your iPhone just like it was 1950 again, is to miss the point.

The train only goes forward; the horse has left the barn and is up in the hills beyond the ken of man. Photographs are impressionistic ephemera, often lies, that take their place in the mosaic of propagandist media that we use to support our preconceptions of the world.

Well, ok. I guess that might change how you take pictures? Or not?