Monday, September 26, 2022

A Followup Note

Commenters have been giving me some pushback. Sssss! Fie on thee! Err, I mean, thank you!

My thought was that a photograph of something lost offers solace, comfort. Thus, having a photograph of a thing eases the path to a future without it; after all, you will still have the solace of the photo. This, I felt, might make it easier to do Modern/Progress things like moving to another city.

Upon receipt of the grossly unfair, that is to say insightful, comments, I gave this more of a think.

The trouble is that I'm not at all sure a photo does offer solace at all. Indeed, in many cases it troubles the mind, and we might be emotionally better off without the photo.

This, of course, does not mean we might not behave as if photos offer solace anyway, we might mistakenly believe that the photos will usefully stand in for the lost home, the abandoned job, the departed children. We might, despite the complication that photos actually offer, still believe in the idea that sending the children to college is easier for having photos of them to hand.

I don't really know. That photos do offer a pre-modern "return" mechanic is, I maintain, correct. What the effect of that is in the large though, I am uncertain.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

A Note on Photographs and Modernity

In my previous castles-in-the-air notes I made some vague claims about how photographs render modernity tolerable to us as human animals. After due consideration I feel it necessary to note that this is in some sense obvious.

Why is moving to a new city tolerable? Well, for many reasons, but one of them is often that at least we'll have the photos of our life in the city we're leaving. We have the photos of many things from the past, and these photos are a piece of why it's tolerable to us to leave the past behind, to move linearly into the future.

At the same time, this is not universal. There are even in America, that most modern of places, many people who do not, can not, will not, proceed into the future in the same ways that I do. Many, many people are rooted to their place, their family, their home. They remain in the cyclic, and resent the march of progress. Their grandfather worked in the mine, and their father worked in the mine, and they worked in the mine until the mine shut down. The fact that working in the mine was incomprehensibly awful in no way changes the fact that the mine getting shut down is also incomprehensibly terrible. The cycle, terrible as it was, has been broken.

I don't know if there's anything about photography specifically there.

Some time ago I read a piece that broke down people into the "somewheres" and the "anywheres." I am an anywhere, I can move, I can find a new place, anywhere. The scion of the Appalachian coal mining clan is a "somewhere" who fits only in one place, and for whatever reason cannot leave it. He votes for Trump, I vote for Biden.

Do photographs define the difference between us? Surely not. But just as surely, I live a "modern" existence, in that strict sense of linearity, or progress into a future that is different from the past. He lives a "pre-modern" life, one in which the future is expected to be, more or less, a repeat of the past.

More accurately one might say that I see a future that differs from the past as normal and generally good. Our "somewhere" sees a future that differs as a failure, as a broken system, and generally speaking bad. Both of us live with a future that is different from the past, but our attitudes differ. This is arguably the conservative versus liberal divide, phrased in personal terms.

I'd be interested to see if there were any studies about the role photography plays in the everyday lives of people of various political stripes.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Magic and Time and Photographs

A photograph, as Barthes noted, testifies to that-which-was and that is all it does. Every other effect follows from this. We see the photo, and we are assured that whatever subject we are looking at was. A photograph shows us, by this testimony, two things: first, how that-which-was is unique and special, and second how that-which-was is the same as every other instance of the subject. We tend to focus on the former, but in almost all cases, it is the latter which dominates.

There are tropes bordering on mandatory for photographing practically everything. Portraits suffer from a gradually evolving set of standards which more or less much be obeyed, not merely to avoid complaint from photographer colleagues, but because in the end your subject does not want to look special or unique. Your subject wants to look the same as everyone else does in their portrait, so you better get all five lights ready. Protests also look all the same; the function of the photojournalist's pictures is not to reveal the uniqueness of the event, but to portray it as like all the other similar events.

The Queen is dead. The pomp surrounding this event is lifted verbatim from history, and the photographs of it will be the same as for her father's funeral, slightly updated and largely in color.

Photographs serve to close the loop, to connect that-which-was with all the others, to reveal not what makes that-which-was unique, but what makes it the same. They help us to construct and maintain an abstract, Platonic, ideal of what a person looks like, what a landscape is, what protest looks like, what a flower looks like, and so on. More precisely, I suppose, every successful photograph contributes to and supports the idea of what a photograph of that thing should look like, but that's almost the same thing. Our idea of whatever-it-is is often basically a photo of it.

Let us cast our mind back, now, to Vilém Flusser. He had some ideas about image-culture versus text-culture, with the former subscribing to a kind of magical thinking in which events repeat endlessly, and the latter leaning toward a proto-modernism, a forward-only linear thinking.

Magic, generally construed, is a kind of personification of time, of the universe. At least one form of magic is built around the idea that repeating an action will cause something to occur. The dance brings rain, etc. Nobody, I suspect, thinks that the dance actually causes the rain in any meaningful way. The idea is that by repeating events that formerly came before rain, the universe can be induced to pick up the pattern and repeat itself. This does not, in fact, work for time, for fate. It works great for people, for dogs, and so on. If you sing the song, the dog jolly well turns up for its dinner, and it really does not take the dog long to learn that the song means dinner.

People, animals in general, make these associations. We constantly blur the lines between correlation and causation. The song does not cause dinner to appear, but it reliably occurs just before, and that's good enough. Magic is a attempt to bend the universe along the same paths, it treats the universe as if it were a trainable dog. See also, of course, Gods, which are a more direct personification attempt, and are closely related to magic.

People are still like this. Even if you never, ever, submit to superstition (and I suspect that would make you a rare bird indeed) you nevertheless fall into patterns dictated by society. You say the appropriate things at the appropriate times, at least some of the time. You may not be manipulating the universe through ritual, but you are observing social rituals in order to get along in society. It is a stretch to suppose that things like good manners are a way to manipulate one another, but they are certainly a means to induce repeat behaviors. Decent manners help keep our spouses coming home, and prevent us from being banned from stores we'd like to return to, and so on.

Ritual is, by definition, repeated. We have a lot of small ritual in our lives, every one of us. We live in cycles.

The photograph reifies the cycle. We don't want to look different in our portrait, we want to look the same. The same as ourselves, the same as everyone else. We want to conform, to perform the ritual, to repeat. The protest makes sense to us only as an instance of a protest, that is similar to, even identical to, all the other protests. The flower, the landscape, the cat picture, the street photograph, the football action shot, all these photographs make sense to us as repetitions of the subject.

Although we say things like "it captures her personality so well" about a portrait, the truly important thing about the picture is that it should look like every other portrait. If the lighting is weird, we notice that. If the styling is dated, we notice that. Only if the picture matches the fairly long laundry list of technical details will we notice how much it captures her personality. Indeed, when we say that, we usually don't mean that at all. It does not capture her personality and in general only looks vaguely like her, but by god it hits all the contemporary tropes and it looks like a portrait photo. So we say the only nice thing we know to say about it.

The point of the photo is not that it captures anything unique, but that it shows the subject as the same as all the other subjects. The point of the photo is to connect the subject to the abstract ideal of a photo portrait, as it "captures" everyone else in the same way.

Let us be terribly realistic for a moment: a portrait that truly revealed someone's personality in any meaningful way would be a terrifying artifact.

Perhaps we no longer seek to control the universe through cycles of ritual, but we certainly make sense of it thus.

This does rather invite the question of how culture was prior to the photograph.

Obviously, um, different.

Mcluhan might chime in about now and remark that a culture that photographs is different from a culture that does not. It occurs to me that prior to the photograph, culture legitimately was more cyclical. For many people, the cycles of the day, the week, and the year were all there was; in modern society, for many of us, every year brings new and unprecedented events. Modernity is in its essence the idea that change and "progress" are normal, expected. We expect to get pay rises, to eventually move into a better home, own a better car, drink more expensive whiskey. We expect to travel, to relocate, to make new friends and lose old ones. It's normal.

Perhaps the photograph as a cultural phenomenon encourages this? Or compensates for it? Or perhaps a bit of both?

It might not be completely crazy to say that modernity would not look quite this way, without the photograph to reify the cycles that we lost along the way.

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Here's a Thing

Here we have a kickstarter for a book about teen obesity, focusing on (to some degree I cannot fully discern) a single subject named Shannon. The photographer, Abbie Trayler-Smith, started working with Shannon when the latter was 15 years old, and I think we may freely assume that at least some photos of underage Shannon appear in the book. In addition, it seems that quite a few sexualized photos of Shannon (presumably no longer underage, let us hope the records are in order) appear.

This book is getting a certain amount of support from what we might describe as "the usual suspects" on social media. This same group is rather fond of pointing out exploitative projects in which, say, underage girls in Africa are photographed for one reason of another. These photos are invariably "bad" because they're exploitative, not empathetic, and so on. There is a whole litany, repeated in chorus at appropriate intervals.

While I may quibble about the details of the litany, to do so is not my intention today. Let us stipulate that the litany is spot on in every detail, for the moment.

The point I want to make here is that every accusation leveled at the Bad Photos can also be leveled at Kiss It!

A common refrain we hear is that "these photos" would never be taken of white people. As Kiss It! illustrates (but see also, for example, Mary Ellen Mark's photos of Erin Blackwell, "Tiny") this isn't really true. You could argue that Kiss It! is built around, perhaps, an empathy with the subject that's not present in the colonial, bad, pictures. This is, I think, a difficult row to hoe, and frankly I think to make that argument would be to project onto the pictures things that are simply not visible, not present.

What is, I think, actually going on is much more nefarious.

When we see the pictures of Shannon, whatever else we see we tend to imagine a kind of agency. Shannon, we feel, is capable of meaningful consent in a way that a Black girl, especially a Black girl in Africa is not. You could substitute in a girl in Guatemala, or New Guinea, with the same effect.

We are, it turns out, much more willing to accept a narrative of "incapable of meaningful consent, and therefore probably exploited" when we see a picture of someone in the Global South, and we are much more willing to accept a narrative of "sufficiently sophisticated and aware of contemporary media culture to give valid, meaningful, consent" when we see a person apparently from the "global north" especially if they are white.

I don't mean to particularly point an accusing finger. I feel it too.

Indeed, there is an argument to be made that people from the global south, as a category, genuinely do have less agency. Poverty, for instance, might well have pushed someone into being photographed when they might otherwise have preferred not to be. People in the global south are indeed more likely to be impoverished, it's part of the definition. There is a necessarily probabilistic argument you can make here. But, it's an argument about likelihoods, not specific cases.

People like Shannon can also be poor, and people in Africa have cell phones and instagram accounts. You can't just make blanket statements. If the photographer says they worked closely, collaboratively, with their subjects and and otherwise checked all the boxes, it's not right to simply say "lol, liar" simply because the photos were made in Thailand. Photographers can absolutely parachute in to a place in the USA, take a bunch of shitty titty shots, and pretend that it's anthropology. Exploitation, as well as its opposite, can in fact take place anywhere.

I don't think that the subject's skin color is a particularly reliable indicator of the degree of exploitation in play, although it might loosely correlate.

I'm not super happy about the Kiss It! project. It strikes me as exploitative. It's hitting a fairly chic topic, in a fairly chic way. There's a depressing amount of the "let's photograph her naked, because that's empowering" trope. It strikes me as essentially too obvious to be taken very seriously. Trayler-Smith wants to "challenge what it means to be fat" which is either a meaningless artspeak noise, or, if it means anything at all she merely wants to remind us that obese people are people. Does this obvious fact bear repeating? I suppose?

I'm sure Abbie and Shannon are indeed friends, and that it's very lovely, but at the end of the day Abbie wants to take a bunch of photos of her friend and boost her own career with them. She wants to turn Shannon's life, specifically the hard parts of that life, and turn that into grist for a "Abbie is a Very Serious Photographer" narrative. Trayler-Smith wants not merely to say "fat people are people too" she wants to get a cookie for repeating this well-established and oft-repeated refrain. While it may bear repeating, I don't see why Trayler-Smith ought to earn a cookie for doing so.

Maybe the book will be great, I dunno. It doesn't look too great to me. It looks dated, shallow, and try-hard.

Monday, September 5, 2022

Art and AI, Part II

I wrote about this a while ago, which ramblings you may read here. I may have gotten slightly sidetracked into making fun of how far "AI research" is from what many people seem to imagine its end goal is, in that piece. Let's take a more art-centric tack, to oppose the AI-centric one.

Some AI generated art piece won a ribbon at a state fair somewhere, recently. It is, obviously, a ridiculous, twee, mess, because that's the sort of thing that wins ribbons at these things. Be that as it may, it is certainly true that this category of AI engines will shortly, if they do not already, generate things that are not particularly twee.

So what?

I promised art-centristry, so here we go. I maintain that art is defined not by how it is made, or what it is made of, but by what it does. It strikes us. It at least has the capacity to enlarge us. But more than that, it means.

A mountain strikes us, enlarges us, but it would be silly to categorize it as Art simply as it stands there. It does not mean in the sense that we generally consider Art to. It does not stand for anything, it is not a symbol, it carries no message and can carry no message (unless, perhaps, from God, in which case everything is Art and the word dissolves into nothing, so let us set that aside.) A mountain, sublime as it may be, represents only itself. Art strikes us, and we believe in some kind of intention in that strike. We believe in the author and we wonder at the author's intent, no matter how vigorously we would cleave to a deconstructionist theory.

This can be broken down further, and indeed we have seen it broken down. The idea that an object might have semiotics, that it might indicate something other than itself, that it might symbolize, is separate from the idea that this meaning is intentional, that it is authored.

The Dada artists did some experiments with automatic drawing, automatic writing, that kind of thing. Others have used randomness, or mechanical means, to make paintings or whatever. These things can symbolize, they can have a semiotics in a way that a mountain does not.

Indeed, you could argue that the automatic drawings acquire meaning in exactly the way that a photograph of a mountain does, in the process of selecting which one to keep and which ones to discard.

If, as I believe, photography is not really an act of creation, but one of selection, then perhaps both automatic drawing and AI generated art are essentially the same as photography. The details of the construction of the thing itself are left up to chance, or the machine; while guidance is applied beforehand, and selection afterwards. Perhaps that is enough?

Will the AI replace the photographer? It might. Will I be able to pump in 3 phone snaps of myself and say "make me a powerful and moving portrait with a key light, a fill light, a hair light, a kicker, and a pink gelled background that also depicts me with a warm and authentic smile as if I am looking not at a camera but at you" and have it do that? Maybe. Probably? Sad for photographers, I guess, but jobs go obsolete, it's a thing. There will probably be a gradually shrinking pool of cases in which the explicit control of actually taking the picture will be worth the extra effort of actually taking the picture.

Of course, there will also always be room for someone to take photos of actual things that actually happen, as records, as documents of the thing, of the event. Perhaps all those photos will be run through the AI to pretty 'em up before we ever see them.

Probably a market for raw material for the mill (see "phone snaps" in the portrait example.)

I do not believe that the photograph as itself will carry any substantive cultural weight. I have given up on the idea that somehow the actual realness of the frame is what matters to ordinary people; what matters is that it looks real, not that it is real, and the machines can certainly make it look real.

Is it art? Sure it's art. It's as art as a photo, as art as an automatic or random drawing. Better than the last two, it tends to actually look like something, so it's not a largely theoretical footnote in art history. It looks like something, and it can mean in the approriate way. What's not to like?

Thursday, September 1, 2022

The Single Use Photo

In what follows I will sound, I am fully aware, exactly like a grumpy old man shouting at clouds. Be that as it may.

Back in the Good Olde Dayes, say, the 1990s, we mostly walked around with, at most, 36 exposures at our beck and call. More if we wanted to fiddle around changing film. We tended to gravitate toward pictures with some weight, whether memorializing something or trying to make a picture somehow "worth printing." We might take a bunch of crummy snaps of Christmas, but because it was Christmas, because it was a memory we wanted to preserve. We might take a bunch of pictures of the crane silhoutted against the sky, but generally with the idea that one of these frames might be a wall-hanger or that at least we were developing skills aimed at some day taking a wall-hanger.

The advent of digital photography made it free to press the button, and the advent of social media created a whole new category of venue for our photos. No longer did they have to have gravitas, no more did they need to be wall-hangers. They could just be pretty, or witty, or fun. Go nuts, take a 100 of them.

Of course, in the old days, we took these things too. Less of them, I think, and we threw them away because there wasn't anything to be done with them. Oh look, a pretty flower. Oh look, a funny sign, or a sign made funny by the guy with the hat standing in front of it. They're not wall-hangers, they're a new kind of consumable, intended to be looked at one (1) time only. They're single-use photos.

"Street photography" is maybe where this is most visible. Compare Robert Frank's book with the stuff we see today. Every frame of Frank's is loaded with meaning, with symbols, with structure. He's trying to communicate something. Most of modern street photography is making a throwaway joke, or noting a momentarily interesting juxtaposition of stuff. Yeah, yeah, there's all sorts of material about a story, but that's BS. The point is that the triangular shadow is pointing at the guy, wow, or that we have strong foreground elements framing a background element, or the complete stranger is doing a funny thing. These are are "lol, next" single-use photos.

The Guardian's "LensCulture street photography awards" are pretty much all of this sort. These are mostly photos nobody would have circled on the contact sheet, but since we've been mired in a photographic culture built around "lol, next" photos, this is now an actual style, a genre, that gets awards. Look at how many of these things are literally "someone's head is covered up by a foreground object, lol."

We see the same phenomenon on random social media, as well. I won't name names, but this morning I ran across a photo, a perfectly pleasing "pretty" picture of nothing, that someone posted to social media. He will never print it, it's very much a "look once, and never again" photo, although it's perfectly pleasant to look at once. Some rando made a negative comment, which is neither here nor there, and then of course the original poster's friends jumped all over extolling the virtues of this essentially throwaway picture. A tale as old as time, if we take "time" as beginning about 2010.

I'm not even arguing that this is a bad thing, it is what it is. The point is, it's a new thing. The idea of the throwaway picture, the "hey, look at this, cool huh?" "yeah, cool" photo, the single-use photo, is by far the dominant idiom. It is what photographers aspire to learn to do. There are millions of hours of youtube videos that teach you how to do this. It mostly didn't exist before 2010.

I have this vague notion that I wrote something like this a long long time ago, the idea of a photo as an artifact that says no more than "look at this?" but I can't find it.