Monday, May 30, 2022

Something to Look At

In the comments on the previous remarks, I made a note of this specific photograph as the pivotal object in the development of my attitude toward Alec Soth's Sleeping by the Mississippi so I thought I'd take a moment to examine it more closely.

We see two women, seated, legs extended toward the camera. They are wearing what appear to be short robes, and some sort of matching undergarments, all made of moderately sheer fabric, quite short. This leaves their legs exposed. The older woman has two small tattoos and a bandaid on one finger, the younger one is holding a cigarette, probably lit and has an aging manicure. Both are perhaps slightly overweight, but attractive by normal standards. Their hair looks wet and unkempt, consistent with recent bathing.

The younger woman wears moderately chunky high heels.

The setting in which they are seated looks vaguely seedy. The colors, the wall behind, the carpet, all look possible for a home, but taken together give an impression of a commercial or even industrial space with some beat up purple furniture shoved haphazardly into it.

I maintain that the impression is of prostitutes, specifically, "cheap whore" tropes. This photo was in fact taken in a brothel, we are informed, so "prostitutes" is certainly possible.

Why do I think this?

The visual emphasis on the women's legs explicitly sexualizes them. Their attire, the vaguely sexy "sleepwear" or possibly "loungewear" when combined with the chunky high heels hits a lot of sex worker tropes.

Tattoos and cigarettes speak to class. Here in 2022 tattoos are mainstream and hip, having made a long and slow journey from rebellious and counter-culture. Cigarettes have been on a long, slow, decline as a signifier of cool since perhaps the 1970s. Both, at this point and in the 1990s when this was shot, occupy an ambiguous position between "cool" and "dumb cracker."

In this picture, with the absence of any other signifiers to the contrary, I think they lean toward signifying low-class, socio-economically challenged, or whatever you want to call it.

It's tempting to describe the women's expressions as sullen, but I don't think that's it. They're just neutral. This pretty standard Soth portraiture, the expression of a bored but willing subject who's been watching this nervous fellow fiddle with his ludicrously huge camera for, honestly, kind of a long time. They're certainly not mugging for the camera, they're not trying particularly to look sexy. At the same time, neither are the particularly comfortable looking.

Given that all the signs point toward sex worker, the bandaid on the old woman's finger is telling. In fact, her nails don't appear to be done at all. These are neither "high class escorts" nor are they trying to fake it. They look like working class women who happen to be working at the sex business in a fairly low-rent establishment.

This is, it turns out, pretty much exactly the ground truth of the frame as far as we know it.

So why does it make me so mad?

The photo arguably presents something like the truth of these women's lives. They look like cheap whores because they are cheap whores. I like truth, right? Truth is good, isn't it?

What the picture lacks is sympathy. You could call it "punching down" if you like, although I despise that specific way of saying this particular thing. You could call it "exploitive" if you like, though that word is wildly overused.

Yes, these are cheap whores. There is surely, though, more to them than that. Surely there is more depth to these women than their demeaning and despised occupation? Why are we reducing them to four ample thighs and some chunky white shoes? While there isn't anything untrue, or even especially extra-demeaning to the picture, at the same time there is no redemption, no sympathy, no depth of character. The photograph does not particularly mock its subjects, but nor does it cast an iota of warmth in their direction, nor does it particularly acknowledge the humanity of its subjects.

The photo strikes me as needlessly, pointlessly, cruel, in the name of formal design and of some kind of objectivity.

One might tell the truth about these women, and at the same time exhibit a trace of empathy, of warmth. It's been done.

This icy tone strikes me as Soth's signature, and I don't like it.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Crit: Alec Soth, Dissolutions (Sleeping by the Mississippi)

I was born in Minnesota, but my family left before I turned 1 year old. Later, as a young adult, I returned there for a decade.

More importantly, I lived my childhood with my parents, as one sometimes does, which parents included, as they do, my father. I liked and respected the old man, and he shaped me profoundly, as these things go. My dad was Minnesota to the bone. Poverty, farming, shooting squirrels, eating turtles, Lutheran values, all that business. I consider myself to be, at a modest remove, deeply Minnesotan. I firmly believe one should never, ever, wax too eloquent about how good things are right now, lest you attract the attention of forces beyond your ken. This makes me either Jewish or Minnesotan, and I am not Jewish.

So much for my bona fides.

I hate Sleeping by the Mississippi so hard. It literally makes me angry just to think about it. It has always struck me as a bitter and cruel look at the heartland of America, a heartland I know in my viscera to be both deeply flawed and extremely beautiful. Soth depicts the land and the people with equal brutality, with an unfairness that makes my knuckles go white. Much has been written about this body of work, but for reasons that have never made sense to me we don't hear much about the cruelty and bitterness that infuses it and most of Soth's work. Nobody has any trouble pointing out how shitty and mean Martin Parr's photos are, but somehow this idea hasn't made it to the mainstream of Soth criticism.

Whatever, though. Go look at the pictures if you don't believe me. There's probably more to it than dumb icy cruelty, but honestly I find myself incapable of locating it. I guess there's a certain formal well-made-ness in there somewhere.

tl;dr I take SbtM's cruelty very very personally.

Curiously, Soth himself seems to be a very nice fellow, not unlike Parr.

This is where I am coming from, anyway, so you know. Moving on to the "Dissolutions" project.

This fuckin' thing. Oh my god. It's an NFT project, currently visible on Obscura, at this link. That link will probably stop working within a year or so, but honestly, who cares?

What is this thing? Well, it appears to be the photos from the book, in order, with a couple of outtakes tacked onto the end. But wait, click on one of the photos and wait. What you're actually looking at is a short video, 92 seconds long, depicting what appears to be a print being dissolved in some sort of liquid bath, which will we take to be acid for the present discussion.  Clear liquid flows outward from some center dissolving the colors into blobs as it moves, the blobs float around and smear, and so on.

Is it a digital effect, or did Soth actually dissolve prints in acid and film the result? Again, who cares? It doesn't seem to matter.

Soth offers up this remark:

For my first commissioned NFT project, I wanted to make something that spoke directly to this transmutation of meaning from the physical to the ephemeral. Whether one dissolves the photographic emulsion or converts it to code on the blockchain, the heart of the art is not destroyed.

The NFT project isn't just another way to "collect" the photos from SbtM, which is good. Soth has thought up a wrinkle, an angle, a new thing which is related to the old thing, to sell here. I mean this in all seriousness: Well done, Alec. You put in some actual effort here, thought it through, developed and executed a concept. Respect. Let us examine whether it paid off.

Soth is claiming, I think explicitly, that the acid-bath routine is connecting the work to its new life as an NFT. The work is physically dissolved by acid, by analogy with the digital dissolution into pure concept on the blockchain.

To be honest, this is a stretch. The acid destroys and transforms. The original is gone, something new is offered up, an abstract set of blobs. This is old news, distressing prints like this has a very very long tradition arguably reaching back to the Pictorialists scratching furiously away at negatives.

As such, the one thing we learn from the long tradition of ruining photographs in an attempt to imbue them with meaning is that this doesn't work. It didn't work in 1895, and it doesn't work now. Indeed, it inevitably smacks of desperation. Pictorialism didn't really work for a bunch of reasons, partly because the artists doing it had no clear idea of what the hell they were about, but also because they were willfully working against the essential nature of the photograph. Sadakichi Hartmann's critique of Pictorialist photography is probably a good thing to re-read about now.

But ok, blockchain, digital dissolution, the becoming-of the token, maybe. The blobs made by the acid strike me as not-at-all the original, whereas the blockchain/token thing very much seems to be claiming to be the original in a funny hat. Still, there's some sort of concept here at least, and the fact that it doesn't work for me doesn't mean that it doesn't have some merit. Recall that I am coming at this from a place of incandescent hatred, and make adjustments as appropriate.

What leaps out to me as missing, though, is the link back to the original work.

You can dissolve any goddamned thing in acid, and Soth's concept works exactly as well. I could dissolve my dog in acid and claim that she's now an NFT, although she would probably object and since she is actually stronger than I am and has enormous teeth, the resulting video would be a lot more interesting than Soth's Dissolutions.

I don't see how this dissolution works conceptually unless it bridges the original work into the new thing, somehow. If it provided a link not from "here's some shit in an acid bath" but specifically from the body of work we know as SbtM to the digital world of the blockchain, it would actually make sense. Try as I might, I can't see how this is supposed to work.

I took a shower, to clean my filthy grub-like body, and stood there with hot water pouring over my head monologuing like some cut-rate supervillain:

I'm going down the river, my river, my conceptual Mississippi. There's a bed. There's a shopping cart. Glum dude. Another bed. Lotta beds. Trees and shit. River. River. How does the river, how does this river, become digital? Where's the offramp to the blockchain?

Nothing. I don't see how the river becomes the token via the acid bath. I can't find the link.

To be honest, I can't even imagine what you'd need to make a body of work, as a body of meaning in its own right, connect to the NFT/blockchain world, via this alchemy of acid dissolution. I just don't see how this can be made to work, at all, for anything. It's just shit dissolving in acid and becoming digital. It's the sound of one hand clapping, a book in which by some non-Euclidean geometry all the pages are recto.

In the end, without that connection, I don't see how this is anything more than the dopey gimmick it appears at first glance to be. The connection from SbtM to the acid-bath doesn't seem to me to exist, and I find the acid-bath analogy to the digitalization to be well-executed but in the end unconvincing.

I don't think this thing works.

But then, I wouldn't would I? All I can claim is to have, as honestly as possible, sought to make sense of it, and to have failed.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

That Ole Authoritarian Tango

If you pay attention to mainstream photography media, social and otherwise, you will notice pretty often calls to remove the verb "to shoot" from the photographer's vocabulary. The association with firearms is harmful and unnecessary, and photographers are already just so exploitive, we should remove this and use "capture" or something.

This oft repeated platitude is often repeated by vaguely amiable fairly nice people who simply want the world to be a better place.

It originates, though, in a much less healthy impulse: the urge to force people to bend the knee and submit to demands. It doesn't matter what demands. As Orwell noted, the point of power is power, and this applies even to the most venal and trivial situations.

It is also, of course, deeply stupid. The verb "to shoot" is ubiquitous in sport, but somehow nobody seems willing to tell soccer (football, <cough>) players to stop "shooting" at the goal. Nobody tells someone facing a challenge to avoid terminology like "best shot" or "shoot the moon." Nobody suggests that fountains do not shoot water into the air ("consider less loaded options like 'ejaculate.'")

It turns out, once you start looking around, photography is absolutely wall-to-wall with these kinds of trivial demands that one kneel.

These days it's popular to dress it up in an ethical/social-justice framework. Informed consent is so necessary but at the same time, somehow, no degree of informing is ever quite enough. No practical, real, degree of consent is actually satisfactory. We see it also, though, in aesthetic demands. Your pictures should be in focus, or not, the colors should be accurate, nor not, or whatever. Sequence this way, not that way. How can you expect to be properly derivative of <name> unless you slavishly copy and submit to my program?

Everyone wants to tell you what you're doing wrong, everyone wants you to submit to their program.

The broadest form of this I have noted is people who are constantly angling for the role of curator and/or critic, based on little more than a kind of dopey personal taste. I can name any number of names of people who have been beavering away trying with more or less success to build a kind of authority, invariably without actually doing much work developing a basis for that desired authority. They skim Barthes and Benjamin, and then they spend years banging away conflating their personal taste with some objective notion of quality, marketing the shit out of themselves.

I dare say this impulse is universal, but from where I sit this morning, it strikes me that photography seems especially full of know-nothing idiots striving against all the other know-nothing idiots to be put "in charge" of some nebulous something or other, to become the boss, to be granted the authority to direct Photography writ large.

Honestly, ignore all these fucking people. Ignore me too.

Or rather, read or listen to what seems useful, and sort it carefully. Throw away anything that's just a demand that you kneel, whether first-hand or tenth, and take away the bits and pieces that you can actually use.

In the end, it's just rectangles full of blobs of tone and color. As long as you don't wind up outing some rat to a mob assassin, nothing you do is going to cause any actual harm, no matter how badly you do it.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Agency, Identity and our Response to a Photo

There has been a mild social media shitstorm generated by the usual tiny cadre, featuring among other pictures the one I talked about in these remarks earlier.

One of the oft-repeated claims in these things is "you'd never see white people photographed this way" which is sometimes true, but often not. Therein lies an interesting observation.

In this case, for instance, we're talking about rape survivors. We would, we are told, never see pictures of white rape survivors. The pictures of dark skinned rape survivors are, we are told, inherently exploitive. We are told that the subjects lack the necessary visual literacy and understanding of media to truly give informed consent. Not everyone says all these things, but these things have all been said.

Put all together, though, these remarks paint a remarkable picture of the attitudes of these warriors for justice, and their attitude toward the people in Africa.

Africa, I have been informed by trusted sources, is not just a gigantic jungle thinly populated by naked savages. It has cities, culture, civilization. It even has media, gasp. The idea that someone with brown skin lacks visual literacy and an understanding of media isn't just wildly racist, it's completely fucking insane.

In reality, we see tons of pictures of white rape survivors. We literally have books by rape survivors with jacket photos right on the book. This is totally a thing. The survivor bravely testifies to her struggles etc etc. This is also precisely the theme of the controversial photos, that these survivors are voluntarily and with courage testifying to their trauma, their struggle, etc, in order to serve a greater good.

I think that what is going on is a pretty nasty dive into our human psyches.

The truth is that I, and many others, are far more willing to accept a narrative of exploitation, of lack of agency, of ignorance, when we see a photo of a brown person than when we see a white person.

I don't know which of the Justice Warriors, if any, are consciously exploiting this, but it is certainly their method: present a photo of a person of color, essentially without context, and then simply state as a bald fact that the subject was exploited by the photographer, is ignorant of media, and lacks agency. Broadly, people will accept this as simply true.

Seeing functionally the same photo of a white person, we're much less willing to accept this story, and will tend to apply a story of agency, of knowledge, of informed consent.

We tend to see the photos of African woman literally as in a different category as functionally identical photos of white women. We believe the story that we would never see "these" photos of a white woman. In a sense it is true, because when we see the white woman, we do not experience it as one of "these" photos but rather as one of "those" photos, which photos we consider as completely different. The difference, though, lies within us not in the blobs of color and tone that we see on the page or screen.

This is a real effect, I think, but it's not clear what the photographer is supposed to do about it.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Award Winning!

I am an award-winning photographer now. I can no longer talk to you unless you have also won an award I'm afraid. It's a cruel but necessary rule.

Here's the proof: Jolt Awards

You may admire the Award Winning Photos here.

Snappy Kraken is a marketing company, and they really really like off-beat stuff. Which, it turns out, is kind of what I am good at. I've done an ongoing campaign in the form of a long series of photos for my wife's business blog, which Snappy Kraken noticed, and they gave me an award. So there. As part of this, I wrote up something of a discussion of "muh pro-cess" and here it is.

When my wife launched her financial planning practice in 2016, I offered to supply her with at least some of the photography. Since I am not a professional as such, she used (with great effect) an actual professional to create the pictures for her main web site. I ended up making pictures for the blog portion, which is to a degree a separate little world of its own. Being generally around, I am conveniently available to make these pictures!

We began with a LEGO minfig, a whimsical and charming miniature female character that seemed to suit the mood of the blog pretty well. Rapidly, though, we realized that this would lead to copyright problems. The LEGO Group is generous, but likely not that generous. I had read within the last few years a book by Molly Bang, Picture This: How Pictures Work, in which she uses a little red triangle to tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood, and to illustrate how emotion and story can be carried with simple graphical shapes. I was pretty sure that a pink triangular block was unlikely to trigger anyone's copyright rights, and so I painted an appropriate scrap of wood, a scrap about 2 inches high.

I'd like to pretend that the concept fell into place fully formed at that point, but that wouldn't be true. What is today a pretty well fleshed out set of ideas has grown fairly organically, by fits and starts, over several years. Rather than try to reconstruct those half-remembered twists and turns, I will instead tell you where we are today, the complete concept. Not every photo succeeds, but I think that en masse and occasionally even one-by-one, the photos hit all or more of the marks.

Block woman, the little pink triangle, is deliberately intended as the avatar of the blog reader, in a sense the ideal customer of Flow Financial Planning, LLC. Pink, despite all efforts, remains resolutely feminine in the modern West. Block woman struggles with the kinds of decisions which that reader might also struggle with; she triumphs likewise in the same ways. The intent is that she should be relatable. She connects the reader to the problem in the blog post.

Using the ideas from Bang's book, I try to create simple scenes which capture some essential idea from the accompanying blog post, ideally some moment of confusion or difficulty or triumph. To be honest, often that's simply too hard to represent visually (how does one photograph a Donor Advised Fund?) and we end up with some silly visual pun, which may or may not even read. Nevertheless, ideally we see block woman palpably struggling with, or solving, exactly the problem the blog post is trying to shed some light on.

At the same time, the pictures try to connect with the Flow brand. Block woman herself is more or less the pink color from the corporate logo, and I will sometimes work in the green or the gold color as well. Every photo has a largely imperceptible vignette applied which is done with the Flow logo's blue. I honestly have no idea if the vignette "reads" but at the very least it helps bolster the common "look" that the blog photos have.

I remind myself regularly of the notion that 50% of marketing doesn't work, we just don't know which 50%, so we do all of it anyway.

Normally, but not always, I try to create an airy, open, warm sensation in the photo. Technically, I lighten up the middle tones a trifle, and render the color palette a little on the warm (yellow/red) side. This openness and warmth, combined with the slightly whacky vibe of an anthropomorphized little-pink-triangle, is aimed at creating an overall vibe of optimism and comfort. The goal is something like "she struggles just as you do, but it's going to be ok, it's a sunny day in block-land!"

To create the emotional content, such as it is, I spend a surprising amount of time getting block woman positioned and/or tilted just so. She leans in to listen, she jumps back in surprise, she hunkers down in worry. Props lean in to threaten, are distant and out of focus to be inaccessible, or loom over the little pink triangle who, we hope, tends to glare back with confidence.

In the ideal blog photo, we have an avatar that the reader can relate to, in an optimistic situation relative to some problem that the reader has or can imagine having, which is also subtly connected to the Flow brand through the use of color.

If the result is funny too, well, so much the better.

If you are one of the little group of shitweasels who are now thinking "I should send a vaguely threatening email about How Problematic Molitor Is to someone" know this: a) I will find out b) I will publish your email and c) I will relentlessly mock you for being so attentive to someone you loudly claim to pay no attention to, ya weird little stalker.