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Thursday, October 27, 2022

The Populism of Photography

A constant source of irritation for me, and one that I absolutely should not let bother me even slightly, is the influence of popularity on photography.

There's a lot of creative things to do out there, and virtually all of them require a lot more commitment than photography. Do you want to be a poet? A novelist? A painter? An architect? Well, bad news, bub, you're going to have to go deep and work hard and you might still never get any good at it. But let me tell you about photography!

Photography is easy. It always has been, but at this point it's frankly absurd. Literally anyone can become a competent photographer, without even working particularly hard. Almost literally anyone can learn to bang out competent and attractive examples of any number of genres. Flower pictures? Portraits? Landscapes? Street? Yes to all of those. Sure, you might never be brilliant, but only weirdo critics can tell the difference between competent and excellent and, quite frankly, they're probably just making shit up.

The result of this is that virtually everyone who styles themself something of a photographer is thoroughly unserious about photography itself.

This rankles, but it ought not. There's genuinely no harm here. Everyone should go nuts.

This is in contrast to something like poetry. Among those who are remotely competent poets, many or most are obsessive about something in it. They might have a deep obsession with the history of the Lake poets, or they might really like something to do with partial rhyming, or whatever. The point is that a lot of poets are kind of weirdos about something poetic, and as a consequence they're pretty sympatico with other poetry weirdos. This is true even if the obsessions don't overlap.

Not so, photography. Virtually every photographer is a dilettante, and not obsessive at all about anything photographic. They quite naturally find the occasional obsessive to be weird and off-putting. They even tend to find the obsessives to be judgmental, sometimes because the obsessives can be pretty judgmental, but not always. When someone else is vigorously doing a thing differently than you do, it can feel like a judgement even when no such thing is intended.

The result of this is that most photography "content" in this modern era is aimed at the unserious, is aimed to read as non-judgmental.

The result is endless miles of incredibly anodyne, repetitive, essentially stupid material. The writing is a mix of industry news and "here's an old picture!" with occasional "here's a really boring but very pretty picture!"

As an obsessive, I hate this stuff. I am interested in my own weirdo niche obsessions, and secondarily I am interested in other people's weirdo obsessions. Very much in last place, I am interested in yet another round of "look, it's Diane Arbus' photo of twins, again, paired, again, with some stupid quote from Szarkowski!"

This, however, sells very very well indeed to the dilettantes. Much as I want everyone to love my weirdo obsessions, it all just feels like judgements to most photographers.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

The Least Cognitive Effort Principle

I got into a small discussion with a dude on twitter, in which it developed that I didn't actually have much of a point. He was remarking that Hannah Arendt identified the use of cliché as a marker of not-much-thought, with sometimes consequences.

Upon further thought, this meshes fairly neatly with a number of things I've been thinking of over the last few years. My belief is that humans husband their cognitive resources fairly jealously, and increasingly so in these over-mediated times. We simply refuse to expend actual thought on a lot of stuff, and have developed a lot of strategies to simplify those parts of our lives which we think of as "thoughtful." Specifically, we seek to simplify the process of reading, both literally and as a metaphor for consuming broader media. This is a generalization, I think, of Arendt's ideas around the use of cliché.

This shows up most obviously in literal reading, especially reading longer pieces of writing.

If you pay much attention, you realize pretty fast that people don't read. Not actually. What they usually do is skim, they look for keywords, they look for phrases, they look for a variety of clues. The purpose of the clue-finding is to help fit the text into a frame. The goal is to identify what the text probably says by matching it to a pretty small set of templates. If it's about color science in Sony cameras, it's probably either "Sony is awesome" or "Sony sucks" so all we have to do is work out which one it is and we're done. Surprisingly, people will do this same thing with a 30 word tweet. Rather than reading it, they'll pattern match it to a canned position, and assume it's a re-iteration of that position. A repetition, if you will, of the cliché.

This has a consequence that turns up in the way we write or more generally "produce content." At some level, we know that people are doing this, so we write in such a way as to ease the pattern matching. First, we adopt a well-established position that we're simply going to re-iterate, and then we lard the piece up with the right keywords and phrases to allow the casual reader to easily identify the position we're re-iterating.

This is, essentially, to deploy cliché as a communication device. The New Yorker will never challenge you, you can rely on it to perfectly meet your expectations, because it traffics in what we might broadly construe as clichés.

On both the production and consumption side, we're communicating in tropes and clichés, simply staking out the same positions over and over, saying the same things over and over. To be fair, original thoughts have always been rare and the bulk of human interaction has always been repetitive and shallow. It is possible that the glut of modern media has made this worse, though, as we more and more jealously guard our limited cognitive energy.

The principle in play here I have named the Least Cognitive Effort Principle. The LCE principle.

For the most part, movies and novels run on rails. We know how the superhero film is going to end up, the only variations are in which special effects will be deployed when and, honestly, that's not super important. Go ahead, take a pee break. The movie matches the template it telegraphed in the trailer and the first 2 minutes, it's fine. You know this film. You know this novel about the young woman in Brooklyn writing her first book, you can pretty much dip in anywhere. Everything is anodyne and predictable, because unless it is nobody will even pretend to read it, watch it, listen to it. We're too overloaded. There's a guy on twitter who just started a photo newsletter, got 20,000 subscribers out of the gate, and the first three newsletters have been the most uninteresting, anodyne, drivel ever.

People love it.

As I have mentioned repeatedly in the past, we see this with photographs.

News photographs do not function to show us what is new about the event, but rather what is the same. The photograph reveals the event to be exactly like the other similar events, we can pattern-match easily. Lefty protest. Righty protest. House fire. Politician speech (right/left.) Etc. We identify the photo immediately, and react not to the picture but to the template we've matched it to.

This makes people like me weirdos. I actually like expending brainpower on a photo, it's my hobby. This makes my understanding, my reading, of a photo different from that of some normie. I'm noticing the details that make it different, they're noticing only the large structure that makes it the same. They're identifying the underlying cliché.

Recall my Theory Of Photographs which is: that they constitute in a sense a portal to "there," that you react in a sense as if you were "there," and that you imagine a world to contain the photo. You imagine the time before and after the shutter press, you imagine the stuff just out of frame, and so on. You do this as an almost biological reaction to the hyper-detailed semi-reality of the photo.

The LCE principle implies a refinement: that you do all this imagining according to the LCE principle. You tend to imagine the world around the photo as pretty similar to yours, you ascribe motivations to the people in the photo in the cognitively-cheapest way possible. You're much more likely to imagine the policeman's emotions as matching whatever cheap opinion you have of cops than you are to actually inspect the cop's body language and expression. You'll react and imagine in response to large, easily identified, features of the picture, and you'll react and imagine as cheaply as possible.

Thinking is hard, and generally people try to avoid it. We speak, listen, read, and write in clichés and near-clichés, as much as possible.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Axes of "Meaning"

Something I have noticed and mentioned in the past is this idea of the "semiotically rich" photograph (or whatever, to be honest, it needn't be a photo.) What I mean is an object that seems to be loaded up with some sort of symbolic content, it's trying to mean something. It might or might not succeed in that goal.

Imagine, if you will, a photo of a beautiful flower lying on a wooden board, a still life. It's not trying very hard to mean anything, and it probably doesn't mean much of anything. It's pretty, and that's nice.

Now slice the flower cleanly across the blossom with a sharp knife. One clean stroke. Photograph that. You might even leave the knife in frame.

This photo is trying to mean something. There's the flower, beautiful and innocent, and it's been sundered! The blade gleams wickedly in the background. Good heavens! But what does it mean? Probably nothing, at least if it's shown to you without any specific context. This is what I have called a semiotically rich photo, it is freighted with meaning but doesn't actually explain itself at all. It is an enigma, fundamentally.

Now replace the flower with a crucifix, similarly hacked in two.

At this point the picture begins to explain itself, at least a little. A symbol for Christianity is chopped in two, surely this is some sort of comment on religion, or religiosity. We don't exactly have chapter and verse here, there remains a degree of enigma, but some sort of meaning is revealed here. The photo is semiotically rich and it also reveals itself.

I propose that there are in some useful sense two axes upon which a photo (or other art) can be placed. One is, roughly, how hard the object is trying to mean, and the other is how successfully it actually does mean. This suggests, of course, the photo that doesn't try very hard to mean, but which nevertheless carries a crystal clear message of some sort. I'm wrestling with that. Not sure it's a thing, and of course if it isn't, the model rather collapses.

This is mostly of note to me because it occurs to me that quite a bit of contemporary art is trying very hard to mean, but does not actually explain itself. You can see that the thing is semiotically rich, it's intensely trying to convey something, but what it's conveying is completely opaque. The little title card next to it will make all clear.

The sundered flower is, according to the title card, a symbol of lost youth, cut apart by age and yet still beautiful in a way.

Tomorrow, the flower might be a symbol for femininity, the knife a metaphor for rape.

The rich but empty artwork is remarkably flexible. The explanation usually can't be just any fool thing, it had to fit with the art, but there is some degree of flex here. If there isn't much flexibility, then more or less by definition the art is explaining itself, defying your efforts to explain it as something else. The art means all by itself without any help.

I have to say I don't much like rich-but-empty art very much, it feels like a bit of a cheat.

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Crit: Car Sick by Tim V.

The book I'm going to talk about here is a book you can't buy. It was a self-pub one-shot, in 2020. Full disclosure, when he was doing the book Tim generously allowed me a look at a pre-print PDF and I gave him some notes and a blurb. Honestly, the book was excellent before I looked at it. I have never checked to see which, if any, of my notes he took. He used my blurb, though, which was very flattering.

Tim is also busy dying now, and was supposed to die a month or so ago. He muffed it and apparently now has a few months left, which he is using to blog fairly aggressively at his excellent Leicaphilia blog. Since he got his brief reprieve, I felt that I should give him a chance to read my review of his book, which I then realized I had to write. So, here we are.

Since you can't buy a copy of it, I made one of those flip-through videos, which will give you at least a sense of the thing.

I like this book a great deal, I think it's an absolutely superb example of a particular form. It's not a form that I am myself well-suited to doing, and it's a bit old school. It's a form that I like a lot, nevertheless.

What we have here is a book very much in the character of Evans' American Photographs or Frank's The Americans and while I won't say this is better or worse than those, I think it can stand with them. They can go to the same parties.

It's a whole bunch of black and white photos, all taken from the windows of a car, over a couple of decades, with Leica cameras. Not my jam at all in terms of making. There is grain a-plenty if you're into that. There's quite a bit of car-window framing. The themes are all car-accessible: roadside sights, automotive stuff, roads, toll booths, other cars. There are no photos from the remote wilderness, no photos looking up, or looking down, no photos of interiors.

What is there, then?

There's a hell of a lot of structure. It's bookended with abstraction: you segue into the body of the book with a series of extremely spare rural road scenes, and exit the book with a fantastic disintegration into abstraction. In between, it's "Walker Evans" sequencing in spades. Each photo connects to the next through some graphical element, or some subject matter. One photo contains has a sign with a line drawing of a washer-dryer set, the next photo has an actual washer and dryer incongruously set outside. These photos are drawn from a very deep archive.

Yet at the same time there is much more going on here. It's not just one and then the next one. There are repeated themes, mainly that of small local religion, but also mass produced statuary, semi-rural decay, boarded up shopfronts, and so on. As often as not the themes overlap, it's a boarded up shopfront church, it's a mass produced concrete statue of the Virgin Mary, and so on. Not only is there a fairly robust linear structure, as in the two older books cited above, there is also a sonata-like repetition of theme, a constant circling back to specific tropes.

The photos themselves are all at least good. There are very few absolute bangers. Everything lands somewhere between the well-framed document of an at least mildly interesting subject, and the well-framed abstraction with only murkily discernible subject. Mostly, the photos lean toward the former.

There are any number of excellent juxtapositions, including what I consider to be the finest pairing of photos I have ever seen. At 2:05 in the video, the sign on the left quotes Proverbs, noting that one never knows what's going to happen (and therefore, presumably, you should go to church or something) and the signs in the photo on the right first urge you to pre-order Holiday Chicken, and second remark that a B-52 with nuclear bombs crashed 3 miles to the south in January of 1961. You can locate the intersection easily with a quick google search and a mapping tool. Indeed, one does not know what today will bring. They're strong photos of a specific kind, of a specific kind of Americana, juxtaposed in a witty way which is nevertheless more than just the joke. The pairing makes a legitimate philosophical statement.

The whole book is like this.

Not only is the book structurally and graphically interesting, though. It constitutes a kind of honest and affectionate portrait of rural, small-town, North Carolina. It is, I think, clear that Tim feels a profound warmth and at the same time a certain frustration and even disgust, with the state in which he lives, and where he has spent a lot of time. Perhaps he finds irritating the constant drumbeat of religion, especially this kind of small-time vaguely venal religion. At the same time, he can't leave it alone.

There is no sign that these are beautiful people or that there is anything special about them, or the communities they live in. Indeed, the few people depicted at all are, as often as not, rendered anonymous. At the same time, there is an affection, or at least a familiarity, from the photographer that comes through.

This is the kind of meaning that I aspire to. I am also in love with America, and frustrated, and disgusted by America. Perhaps I am actually just projecting my own conceptions onto this book, but damn it, it seems to accept those projections willingly even if it's not Tim's intention. I see the book as a kind of affectionate portrait of a dog who is dumb, ill-mannered, but basically, somehow, a pretty decent dog, a dog you love in spite of and maybe because of its many, many, flaws.

I like this book a lot, and I am extremely happy to have bought it when the opportunity came along.

Thanks, Tim! Well done!

Wednesday, October 5, 2022


It's a little after 1am, and I am on New Mexico 68 heading out of Taos toward Albuquerque. I have to get about 140 miles in the next three hours, to make my 5:35am flight home. It's raining. I have the hi-beams on, and my too-smart rental keeps turning them off because it thinks it's seeing oncoming traffic. There is not. There's nobody. I have the hi-beams on because I'm looking for wildlife. Hitting a deer or something larger has a best case scenario of destruction of the rental car, missing my flight, and a long wait for a replacement. Best case. Also the complex and probably expensive business of buying Avis a new car. Hitting something smaller, like a coyote, means I likely get to make my flight, but it's still an expensive pain in the ass because Avis will want someone to unfuck their car, which will probably be kinda fucked up.

I am focussed, scanning the road and roadside ahead for animal shapes, but more importantly, the flare of eyes. Looking for eyes on a highway in the USA is a nightmare, our highways are festooned with reflectives to help the inattentive stay roughly on the road. I am not inattentive, although every time I find myself distracted I return my attention forward fully expecting an elk coming through the windshield.

It rains all the way to Albuquerque. I meet no wildlife.

What am I doing here? I've just finished Antidote, Jonathan Blaustein's annual photo retreat just outside of Taos, and I'm on my way home. It's Balloon Festival time in Albuquerque, so staying the night there is insanely expensive, and also I don't like Albuquerque.

How was Antidote, you ask? I'm glad you asked, because that's what I'm here to tell you! It was great.

Ok, there's a bit more to it. It was intense, at times uncomfortable, at times angering, at times upsetting. It was inspiring and educational besides. It was fun. it was beautiful. It was really really fucking far away.

The format is thus: three days which begin with a reviving outdoor activity which connects us to nature and so on in a startlingly beautiful part of the world (this was, for this instance, a modest hike each day.) The afternoon of each day was some kind of intense photographic review/critique/conversation. And here lies the slightly forced connection to the hi-beam shenanigans this opened with. I spent something like 12 hours all up furiously trying to focus on questions around photography and photographs, and it was hard. But good. No metaphorical elk were launched through any metaphorical windshields, but there were moments.

On day one I had a nascent project critiqued by three separate people, each expert in their own way. Between us we reshaped the project completely, which rendered my little collection of four prints rather moot, but whatcha gonna do? This was the first point of discomfort. It's pretty un-fun to have people think really hard about what they might actually say about your work, because they will often find things to say that are not "ooo, you're such a genius, may I touch your biceps?"

On day two, it was group critique time, and we all mobbed one another in sequence. This was also uncomfortable, for the same reasons, but in my case doubly awkward because the work being critiqued was not what the work was going to be at all anyways, so I had to struggle to not waste everyone's time waving my arms to describe pictures that don't exist, and also to glean value from critique of the work that was present but only loosely relevant.

Tip: If your final product won't be 8x10 black and white prints, make that really really clear if you've brought 8x10 black and white prints, because everyone will quite naturally assume that you're planning to make 8x10 black and white prints.

Then Jonathan asked me if I was uncomfortable which I swear to god was very extremely irritating. I hid my irritation masterfully, I am sure. Of course I'm uncomfortable, omg, wtf, applesauce.

Throughout this Jonathan was leading the critique, and a point he hammered almost everyone with was, essentially, why are you doing this instead of something else? This too was irritating because he refused to accept the truthful answer which is often "because it's the easiest/funnest/coolest-looking thing"

FYI I am very extremely fond of Jonathan and respect him enormously, but boy if you stuff him in a pressure cooker with me there's gonna be some mixed feelings. He stuffed us ridiculously full of food and drink though which makes up for a lot.

In my case I am taking photos of myself, and the reason is, in part, because I am the easiest model to hire and to bully. You think Cindy Sherman didn't start out shooting herself because she was always lurking about the place? Pull the other one, of course she did.

It was only days later that I really worked out what the point was. The way I read Jonathan, what he was saying was, in fact, that you can do whatever whenever, but if you cannot eventually justify your pragmatic choices artistically then you should ditch them. If selfies aren't the right answer, then, no matter how convenient they are, I, Andrew Molitor, need to stop doing them. I am still thinking about how much I agree with that, but I accept it as an idea. Cindy Sherman doesn't have to shoot herself any more, but she still does, because it makes artistic sense for her to do so. I think she mighta shaped the art to fit, though.

Anyways, onwards. Day three was free form discussion which covered a lot of stuff like how do gallerists actually find new artists, and what about all the new ways people can get paid? (patreon, kickstarter, NFTs, etc etc.) I could report on it, but honestly, it was all minutiae. Interesting, but minutiae.

I, we, looked a lot at one another's projects. I found a great deal to like in all of them.

It struck me that most of the other students had developed a bunch of technique, and were trying to get some meaning to emerge. Many of them had some shape to the meaning, but were having trouble persuading the meaning to really gel. This is common, it's probably true that the vast majority of photographers who have grasped the idea that there even could be something like meaning then dork around with technique trying to make meaning emerge.

Yrs trly, because I am me, always do it upside down. I dork around with meaning hoping a technique will emerge.

It sounds very clever to say this, but I think it's not as clever as it sounds. If you have both technique and meaning worked out, then you're done. Congratulations. So, "project that is not done" is pretty much synonymous with "project that is weak on either technique, or meaning." The only other thing you can fuck up is connecting technique and meaning, and in a later essay I'm going to write some day, I think I'm going to argue that this might be optional.

I like to think that we, collectively, were able to say some useful things for one another. I know I got useful things said to me. Not that I will take anyone's note as stated, but many things were said that clarified things and sparked ideas, and somehow pointed me in a better direction.

There were dogs and kids. By preference, I will hang around with dogs and kids first, adults a distant second. I would like to be praised for my bravery in hanging around mostly with the adults. Not gonna lie, I spent a lot of time with the dogs, but I didn't completely blow off the adults. So, praise: go!


Re-reading the above in the cold light of day I think it's worth adding this, since I feel like the above reads a little harsh. Think of Jonathan as Mr. Miyagi. You're gonna be upset more than once, you might even get a bit mad in the moment here and there, but there's a method in play and he's probably right. It's part of the process, it's ok, it's normal, it's expected, and it works.

I wouldn't change anything, except maybe myself.