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Monday, August 29, 2022

A Wedding

We wrapped up the mayhem that is Summer Holiday with a wedding in Portland, OR. L and C, a pair of beautiful brides, got married in stunning style in a series of events over three days. Replacing the mook in the tux with a second bride is genius, it just looks way way better. We attended all of it, and enjoyed the hell out of every second. C is not, as I understand it, deaf herself, but is a part of the deaf community. CORRECTION: C identifies as deaf, and while she has some degree of hearing, it is partial. There are probably technical terms that would define this precisely, I decline to demonstrate my ignorance. Thus, there was a lot of ASL in play, which was humbling for a non-speaker like me in all the best ways. Also, lesbian weddings appear to be an unbroken wall of incredibly hot women, but I felt somehow that they were mostly long-shots, and also my wife was there; I stuck to the canap├ęs.

None of this has anything to do with my point here. What does matter is that L has a remarkable smile. One of those 1000 watt smiles. L was visibly nervous and tense, so it was always a pleasure when the smile popped out. (C is getting short shrift here, but L is my wife's friend, so there.)

After the ceremony the brides were being flogged through the intense gamut of Mandatory Photographs, off to one side, while the rest of us sat around drinking and eating and talking. I won't accuse anyone else, but if you wanted to compare me to some exquisitely self-satisfied farm animal, I would unable to mount a credible rebuttal. Since I am me, though, I noticed the photographic suffering going on over there.

For each grouping, L turned on the smile, BAM. Snap. Then the smile faded quickly and she was back to marshalling the next grouping, and then the smile, and Snap, and so on.

I would never accuse L of a false smile. I am certain that for each photo she took a breath, and found that happy place, that joy in the moment, and brought it out for the camera, for the photo. Nevertheless, that smile has the character of a pose. Of course, everyone else was posing at least as much, but I wasn't looking at them. I'm looking at the brides, duh.

Ok, so what?

Well, later on, having observed L's extremely poised camera pose, I noticed her with her wife, notably, but also with other friends, every now and then having a moment even in the stress and madness of a gigantic wedding. The smile would come out again. Subtly but palpably different. I tried to quantify what was different, but it's not obvious. Something about the eyes. I think she lets her eyes close a little when there's no camera.

That was special. The same 1000 watts, maybe 1100, but without the pose. Powered entirely by joy. Again, it's not a difference between "false" and "genuine" at all, it's just the context, the intent, the moment. Posing for the camera is one thing, and being in the calming presence of your loved ones is another. I'll unbend enough to propose that the latter is somehow warmer.

Long time readers, at least the attentive ones, will notice that this is a difference I harp on constantly, the difference between the pose, "camera face," and this other thing, this warmer, emotion-powered thing that somehow sidesteps the camera. The the difference between a good portrait and a great one is when that warmer non-pose is directed, somehow, at the camera. The sitter sees "you" rather than the lens, the sitter feels seen rather than observed.

To pose for the camera, to "act" in some sense (although the act may be a performance of some truth), but to not act for the close friend, for the loved one, is thoroughly natual to us. We do it automatically, without thought, and indeed to do otherwise borders on the impossible. The point of the great portraitist, of the great portrait, is that the sitter is "natural" in front of the lens, despite awareness of the lens.

It's a subtle distinction, and unless you see it side-by-side, you might never notice the difference. Nevertheless, it's real, and we humans as, essentially, face-reading machines with stomachs, notice it instantly in the right circumstances. The meaning of the two postures is quite different, and getting that committed to a photograph is quite a trick.

Also, it was extremely fun to watch, and very warming to the soul. I have high hopes for C and L, and wish them the very very very best. Plus, they throw a hell of a party, omg. So good.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

It's All Contingent

It is, I think, an established fact or at least truism among professional pollsters that you can draw pretty much any desired answer to any specific question, if you precede the question with other questions crafted in the right way. Want to prove that The Voters support Tough On Crime measures? Or the reverse? Craft your sequence of questions appropriately.

At the same time, in this century, we have philosophers who are fond of posing questions about whether one would, or would not, save the baby under this circumstance or that.

The essential feature of a philosophy, or or a system of ethics, is that it should reliably produce the same answer repeatedly, when confronted with the same problem, repeatedly.

This isn't how people work, at all, so in a large sense this sort of thing is an utterly bankrupt procedure. I have become convinced that our actions, our ideas of right and wrong, and all our more nuanced judgements, are highly contingent. They depend upon the sequence of questions leading up to the question of interest. Our entire sense of society is built around weirdly arbitrary not-even-rules like "is the baby nearby, or on another continent?" and "am I related to the baby?" and "do I know the baby's parents?" and so on, to say nothing of "I got paid yesterday" versus "I don't get paid for another three weeks" and also the weather and phase of the moon and how pleasant the clerk was just now.

You could probably make some evolutionary argument, to the effect that we human apes are always optimizing for local something-or-other and as such all decisions are made in the context of a gestalt where-are-we-now. But it doesn't matter where it comes from or why, what matters to me here and now is that this seems to be the way we work. We arrive at conclusion A here and now, and presented with what is apparently an identical problem save perhaps for some trivial details tomorrow, we arrive at precisely the opposite conclusion, not A. This is normal, this is human. Our ideas of ethics, of philosophy, of meaning, being built on the idea of repeatability, are bankrupt and wrong in human terms.

When we come upon a scene in the real world, our reaction to it, our understanding of it, is contingent in the same way. I come across a group of homeless people in the park, and because I am a good liberal I am sympathetic to their plight and mentally cut them some slack. Except when I don't. Sometimes I long to horsewhip their filthy littering asses out of my park and down to the Mission to clean up and dry out and get a goddamned job. I am the same person. The situation is the same. But the gestalt where-am-I-now is always in flux, and as such, my reaction varies.

Insofar as we react to a photograph as-if it were the real world, our reaction to is it necessarily contingent in the same way and for the same reasons.

In general it seems reasonable that the more powerfully the hand of the author can assert itself in a work of art, the less contingent the meaning is likely to be. In this case I refer to the "meaning" that some normie will make of it, not some scholarly interpretation. So, a movie or a novel is likely to be understood in relative terms in a less contingent way than a painting, which in turn is (generally, relatively) understood in a less contingent way than a photograph, which itself falls to the contingency with which we understand the world as a whole.

There are, I think, two quite separate factors here. The first is that a heavy-handed author leaves less room for interpretation. In the limiting case all you can do is accept or reject the conclusion. The second factor is that preparation of the viewer business that pollsters know about. You can, at least in theory, warm the viewer up to your ideas. In this latter case, the Art or whatever is the whole thing, all the context, the text, the pictures, whatever, and the viewer is assumed to bringing whatever they are today to it. But the Art as a whole can in theory modify the condition of who-you-are to a degree and bring out some kind of reaction which is.. I don't even know. Is it better or worse? It's probably different, and maybe more profound? If the purpose of Art is to affect the viewer rather than to simply lecture, I guess the idea of changing the who-are-you-now gestalt is desireable.

A photograph more or less by itself, especially a documentary-styled photograph, lies fairly far on the contingent end of things. We're likely to make sense of it based on who we are, but more than that, on who we are at this moment. You as the artist can try to shape the experience, or to nail down the meaning, but the photo itself is elusive.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

In The Forest

In the forest we find these things at least: plants comprising trees, shrubs, bushes, ferns, mosses, and sundry smaller plants; fungi of the toadstool sort and of the shelving sort and of the spreading sort and of the sort made of invisible threads meshed through and through the fallen leaves and earth and roots; and animals; bugs that fly and bugs that crawl and bugs that dig and bugs that do all of them; and animals with scales and animals with fur and small animals that scurry and climb and animals that slink and hide and animals that lumber and decline to hide although even they are often shy and animals with wings and feathers that flit or soar and that sit on twigs, on branches and others that cling to the side of the tree with skewed toes and some that hop on the earth below. I suppose there are also algaes and lichens down among the fungi and painted peeling on rocks and trees and anything else that holds still enough.

It is the trees, though, that we see. Hanging from the sky with roots gently brushing the earth grasping at the earth dangling from the clouds trees infinitely long to us below who gape up from the ground they seem barely to touch, although we know really that there is as much tree underneath as there is tree above.

This is what we see. What we hear, mostly, but mostly do not see are animals. Chitter. Chirp. A scurrying rustle and cry of alarm or of rage and the whomp of wing stirring the air and the rattle of a beetle and on and on. Left to their own devices, the trees would make no sound at all except, rarely, the crunching crashing bang of a falling branch or stem grown too far for too long and succumbing finally to the infinite patience of gravity. The movement of air encroaches from time to time, fluttering leaf on leaf, creaking limb on limb here and groaning trunk there but otherwise, the trees in even a small forest a thousand thousand tons of fiber and living tissue go about the business of living in complete silence. The umwelt of the tree is empty of the animal kingdom, contains nothing of humanity perceived if at all as instantaneous incomprehensible violence no more experienced than we experience quantum mechanics, a violence that kills in the interval between two moments or which leaves a wound that heals slowly. The trees get on with the business of living, of starving the other plants of light and water and life, of murder and of symbiosis all at a pace no more perceptible to us than the axe to the tree.

The enormous indifferent mass of trees from sky to earth muffles sound with the mass of wood, of leaves, and the mass and volume of air enclosed within the trees pinned to the clouds swallows up the chattering and scuffling and rattling of rootless mobile life, renders the sounds soft and distant. The largest groves the eldest the tallest, lift the sounds up and away into the distant canopy leaving almost nothing but silence behind a silence we sometimes pretend to in our largest cathedrals our most ancient and holy dwellings.

The forest, like the sea, is indifferent. We interpret with desperate hope with overweening optimism this indifference as a kind of sacred benevolence, hoping that the trees individually and the forest collectively will somehow bless us and make us fruitful or at any rate successful or if not that at least not dead too soon. It is no accident that some of our earliest gods are the gods of forest and of sea of the vast indifferent forces in and around which we first scrambled out a small living for a moment or two but our gods never perceived us. Our first gods ever so concrete and real and touchable lacked the ability even to notice us to notice our deference our supplication our placatory attempts to weasel out some little favor for ourself or perhaps a similarly short-lived and suspiciously hairless ape which we happened to love for reasons the trees would never, if we could somehow make them see it, understand.

And so it is that we perceive the forest as both sacred and terrifying and eventually also and at the same time mundane. The forest is indifferent and vast and we are imperceptible to it. We are free to worship or to flee or to gather mushrooms for our dinner, and perhaps we will be killed and perhaps eaten by some creature larger and even more violent than ourselves and the forest will not care or even notice. Most likely, though, the mushrooms will be excellent.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Language, Photography, Cinema, and Gaze

Not too long ago I had the opportunity to revisit the idea that "photography is a language" which it is not. I thought about it some more.

Cinema is a language. At the very least, the way movies are usually made is to assemble the pieces according to a fairly well defined, teachable, system that is very linguistic in character even if it perhaps falls short of some specific definition of "language." The linguistic part isn't the part with the camera, though, it's the part that comes afterwards where the output of the camera is cut together into a movie.

A clip of an actor speaking a line of dialog enjoys much of the same ambiguity a still photograph does. The clip spans time, giving you a taste of before/after in ways that a still does not, but it is nevertheless free floating. Cut that clip together with another actor speaking a response, and make sure the faces are looking in opposite directions, and that eye-lines match, and so on, and abruptly the meaning of the clip is much more nailed down. The character is in conversation with the other character. Continue in the same way for long enough, and you have a movie in which a story is told, relationships are revealed, and so on. Much of that meaning can be imposed after shooting is completed. In extreme cases all the meaning is imposed in the edit.

When we speak of cinema, we speak of these completed objects. These are finished statements, written in a language, which nail down by the use of that language much of the meaning we might make of the film. This is the point of the language of cinema editing. This is why a language has been devised to do this work: because film makers want to nail down the meaning, they want to say coherent, specific, unambiguous things. He said this to her, she shot him in the forehead, and then left through the glass doors, feeling upset and angry. Not everything is nailed down, of course, nothing ever is. But the point is that there is much that is nailed down.

We tend to think of a photograph at least mostly as if it were outside of any context, as free floating. We treat photographs in roughly the way we would think about a single clip of film, before it is edited into a movie.

This is important: It is tempting to apply theory and ideas from cinema to photographs, because they are in some sense the same medium. This is invariably a very bad idea. Film theory applies almost exclusively to the finished product. It is a theory about objects which are linguistic in character, about objects that say things intended by an author (pace Barthes.) Film theory is, if anything, about the ways authors can say things with film, about the ways they cannot say things, about the ways the things the film says are or are not what the author intended.

Photographs are not like that. They are non-linguistic, and most of the meaning we make of a photograph does not arise from the author's intention but rather from what we imagine the author's intentions to have been. There are signs and symbols in a photograph, but for the most part these are not organized into a sentence-like structure which carries meaning. The signs and symbols in a photograph simply are, radiating their ambiguous meanings. The distinction here is something like the difference between literary criticism and etymology.

You can, of course, edit photographs in a way that is analogous to the way we edit movies. This is referred to in modern parlance as "sequencing" and there is no coherent, teachable, school of how that should be done. Advice on sequencing invariably comes out to "print them all out and stick them up where you can look at them. Then shuffle them around until you want to die." You know you're done when you know you're done, objective criteria, or even shared criteria, for done-ness would be considered gauche and a violation of the artist's true expression. You can, of course, apply cinematic methods and produce a sort of stupid "movie" but mostly this isn't what you do. Sequencing, anyway, is largely an art-school affectation with 1000 different flavors, and is thoroughly divorced from photography as a cultural force, as a cultural phenomenon.

The idea of male gaze comes out of the theory of cinema. It is the notion that women and men are commonly presented differently in movies. The women are victims, passive, sexually available, and so on. The men are active, heroic, and so on. You observe these things at the level of "text" in a movie. You can "close read" by counting lines of dialog, you can measure screen time, and so on. You can look narrative structures, etcetera and so forth. You can probably re-task all the techniques of literary analysis to a movie to demonstrate this point, and you discover something real. "Male gaze" is an actual thing in movies.

You cannot meaningfully apply these methods to a photograph, or really even a grouping of photographs.

Re-tasking "gaze" to still photographs is essentially nonsensical. It's like applying differential calculus to dogs. This is why we've ended up with a theory of photographic gaze that is impossible to explain, you can "just see it" and if you can't you "need to do the reading," except that it invariably is just a proxy for the identity of the photographer and how much the critic likes them.

It is notable that Mulvey's original formulation of "male gaze" makes it clear that women can and often do make movies in which "male gaze" is a phenomenon. "Gaze" in Mulvey's formulation, is a well-defined property of a movie, which exists independent of the identity of whoever made the movie. You can basically fill out a spreadsheet for a movie and see how much "male gaze" is in it. You cannot say any of this for the corresponding photographic concept, because the latter is a mess, and it's a mess because "gaze" is an attempt to apply a quasi-literary concept to a medium that isn't even linguistic, let alone literary.

In general, any attempt to apply cinematic theory to still photographs is as doomed as an effort to apply literary criticism to etymological problems, and for exactly the same reasons.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Something To Look At

Let's take a look at this photo.

We see a man, older and running to fat. He's running his hand through his own hair, which appears greasy and unfashionably long. He is ill-shaven, and has bad skin, whether from age or from injury is unclear. His hair is grey, his ears have the characteristic enlargement of an old man's, the backs of his hands are a forest of hair. Indeed, this is a very very hairy dude, his ears are hairy, his hands are hairy, and it seems likely that someone's making him maintain his eyebrows and use a nose-hair trimmer, even if they can't get him to groom anything else.

His eyes are closed, his head leans toward the hand, as if for support. His lips appear pursed, perhaps vaguely suggestive of some inner turmoil, but see below. Behind him, some kind of signage which, despite being legible, seems to have been expertly cropped to prevent us guessing at any of the words.

His clothing, insofar as we can see it, is as they say a study in contrasts. The neckline suggests a T-shirt, and there's something of a profusion of collars going on. Over whatever that is, he is clearly wearing some more dressy jacket sporting 4 decorative buttons at the cuff. The sleeve of a shirt protrudes from the jacket cuff. Is he wearing a long sleeved T-shirt? The jacket itself, while clearly leaning toward dressy (buttons) seems also a trifle frayed. The apparent fraying is probably emphasized, if not entirely created, by the strong, harsh, lighting. On the clothes, see below.

The lighting is harsh, somewhat low, and very directional. This feels like headlights, or a simulation of headlights. I don't see any twinning of shadows, so possibly it's just an unmodified flash held low and to the photographer's left. The effect, though, is very harsh, revealing to the point of a kind of nakedness. This is very much a WeeGee vibe.

I think we can comfortably read this as a tired man, perhaps even a beaten man, pinned down under harsh light, revealed and trapped in a moment of weakness. He seems to be neither embracing the camera nor rejecting it, but oblivious to it. The camera feels quite close, though, so the sense we get is not that the subject hasn't noticed, but rather that he doesn't care. Possibly, he is acting as-if he doesn't care, an interpretation which suggests that the act might extend further.

The subject is Steve Bannon, photographed after having been found guilty of lying to Congress. He was photographed by Mark Peterson, who also shot a photo of some cops that I talked about.

Bannon's lips are in fact simply very thin (or possibly he keeps them always pursed) so any impression from the set of his lips is probably a chimera. The chaos of collars and jacket is standard Bannon fare, he is known for wearing at least three shirts at all time. Further, the ill-shaven face is another Bannon tic, something like Boris Johnson's perma-rumpled hair — most likely some dumb but successful attempt to appeal to Regular Guys (Bannon, like all these assholes, is a multi-millionaire.)

What does not appear, at least to my eye, is any judgement on the man.

I am in judgement of Steve Bannon, who I consider to be a worm, and a very bad person. I am glad he was convicted of something, although I think that lying to Congress ought to be mandatory rather than illegal. I mean, seriously, what a bunch of doltish scoundrels. Why would anyone sully the truth by uttering it in those chambers? But anyways, Bannon guilty yay I guess.

If you're a Bannon fan, though, I think you might find much to sympathize with here. This is an intimate photo of a man who's taken a pretty severe blow. There's something of a boxing photo in here, I think, and this is, somehow, the fighter who got the worst of the bout. However, to acknowledge and to reveal the loss is not to judge. There is a strong flavor of pathos here.

If we imagine he might be acting, as noted above, it becomes reasonable to speculate that he's playing to his fans, milking them for sympathy with a routine of discouragement. The pose is, indeed, reminiscent of a drama queen with the back of her hand to her forehead, gasping about her vapors for sympathy. It's not at all clear that this is what's going on, and in fact I am fairly convinced of the genuineness of Bannon's emotions here.

I am glad he lost, and I take genuine pleasure in the loss revealed by this picture. That pleasure, and the source of that pleasure, is in me. I dare say many of my readers will also take the same pleasure, for the same reasons, but I defy you to find the judgement you feel anywhere in the blobs of tone which make up this picture.

You are judging, not the picture.