Monday, November 28, 2022

It's Not Vernacular!!!!!

In the previous two notes I have cited vernacular photography a few times, as a source, and inevitably more than one person has latched on to that.

I am explicitly not suggesting that vernacular photography is the way forward!

I am fine with vernacular photography, it's great. I am also fine with overworked photos, although they are less great. My point is essentially Berger's: there is a point of crisis in working to produce a photograph, a point at which you cease to discover your subject, and begin to discover things about the photograph itself. When you continue much past that crisis point you begin to make a picture that is about itself, rather than to discover things about your subject (or yourself, or whatever.)

You can produce highly non-vernacular photos without going past that crisis point. I've shown you this thing, and even given away some prints of it:

This thing is the result of a well-defined process which in almost no way resembles the modern "work with test prints until you die" model.

I observed the lilies on the dining room table, doing their thing. Specifically I noted the way the stems under the water were folding up. I buckled to the urge to photograph these things, because I am weak. I hastily hung up a dark blanket in the basement and set the pot of lilies on a precarious pile of basement junk in front of same, and set up the camera on a tripod. I got a flashlight. This took perhaps 10 minutes.

Then I made a short series of long exposures, painting the lilies with the flashlight, trying to bring out whatever felt right. This took no more than another 10 minutes.

I pulled the files onto my computer, fiddled with a few levels and curves, cropped with 4:5, and was done. Maybe 10 more minutes. Timestamps suggest 80 minutes from exposure to finished, but you should assume I got at least one cup of coffee in there.

The point of all this is that what I was engaged in was an exploration of the subject, an adventure aimed to reveal what seemed to me important, or whatever it was I was responding to when I saw the jar of flowers on the table. That's it. I stopped when I felt I'd brought that out as much as I could.

It's not vernacular, nobody would look at that photo and say "ahhh, I see you're deploying the tropes of vernacular photography." It's an extremely formal photograph, that looks pretty heavily worked. It is not. It is a hastily made voyage of discovery. It shares with vernacular photography not a look, or a style, but rather an approach to seeing. Vernacular photography is about recording what it in front of the camera, about revealing what is seen. Look how cute my daughter is! Look at the way the stems of these lilies are folding up! See?

Can you tell? Does it look like something that would get heavily upvoted on whatever web site?

Well. Kind of? It's formal and beautiful, but it doesn't have any of the marks of being ostentatiously overworked which seem to be a requirement to make Flickr's "Explore" page, and I consider that a good thing. There is, I feel, a harshness, a directness, that suits me very well indeed. These are the kinds of pictures I want to produce, the kinds of pictures that I want to build into larger things with meaning.

My only issue with this photo is that it doesn't mean anything. It is, I feel, a well-made study that hits certain notes that I want to hit, but it doesn't mean anything. It exemplifies a method that works for me, a method which can produce other photographs which do "mean." It exemplifies a method that stops at the moment of crisis, and can therefore produce work that is about something other than the photograph.

This photo, I think, is about its subject, and whatever else these is about it, I think that comes through.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Method and Process II

I offer herein further hasty remarks to clarify yesterday's hasty remarks.

John Berger wrote a well known essay about the process of drawing. It seems to appear in every essay collection, and as a consequence I own probably at least three copies of it, perhaps more. In it, he expounds a version of his notion of what Art is about, how it made (and, as a consequence, how it is consumed.) Berger considers Art to be a process of discovery, the act of making Art is a series of discoveries about the subject, the artist, their relationship, whatever. Anything but the Art Object itself.

In drawing, Berger says, you discover things about the subject and represent them with lines. At some point, a drawing reaches a crisis point, a point at which the process of drawing pivots from setting down discoveries about the subject to setting down things according to the needs of the drawing itself. The drawing, in my paraphrase, begins to be about itself rather than about the subject.

It seems to me that much of "serious photography" begins more or less at the crisis. The photographer observes something in the world, records it with the camera, and from that point forward for the Serious Photographer the process largely ignores the subject, and indeed everything except the photograph itself.

Even Adams who banged on endlessly about things that get used constantly by Serious Photographers never let up on his belief that all work done on the picture had to be referred back to the subject, and the photographer's relationship with the subject. To express that was specifically, explicitly, the point of all manipulation.

This has, largely, been lost. Most modern serious photographs are about themselves, and that is what makes them uninteresting. That is why we've seen them all.

This, in contrast to vernacular photography, which is always and entirely about the subject.

Consider also that the only people who look at a photograph and consider the photograph itself as a thing are themselves photographers. Normal people look at the subject. So, when some Serious Goob "makes" a photograph, they've created an object that is about itself, about something that normies won't even see. They'll see the subject which, in a meaningful way, is something the photographer doesn't even care about. The subject is just there to be depicted by the photograph, and the normies can kinda tell.

Now, to be fair, art that is about itself is pretty normal these days. Berger was always a bit of a weirdo, and while today everyone pretends to hold him up as a standard, most of even those people haven't the foggiest idea what he said and would violently disagree with it if they knew. Berger is a source of little quotable bits, not of actual ideas, these days.

From where I sit a synthesis of the vernacular's subject-forwardness with an artistic grasp of formal properties is if not the only way to take photos, certainly an excellent one.

Compare any of the Big Names from the 20th century with the output of the average MFA student, or Street Photographer or Serious Amateur or whatever and you will, I think, see how the former tended more toward revealing discoveries about the subject, and the latter are largely making pictures which are about themselves.

I like the first ones better.

Don't over-work your photos, man.

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Method and Process

For decades now, at least, we've been innundated with boring think pieces about Those Darn Kids Don't Know How To Do Photography. The material is always the same: you have to shoot a bunch of photos, and then edit, edit, edit. Trim it down to either the bangers, or a tight "story" (whatever that is), or possibly only the bangers that tell a story. Only show your best work. Agonize over the edit. Tape work prints to the wall of a tiny hut you built with your own hands and live with them for a year under a vow of silence, eating only boiled rice and spring water.

Which, ok, that's absolutely a way to do it. I was brought up to do photography in exactly this way. Millions of other people as well. It produces a specific kind of a thing, a very studied thing. An inevitably stale and overworked thing which reeks of brow-sweat.

Mike over at ToP espouses this method, but so do endless other grey-beards from the same general era. I have probably espoused it myself. Again, it is the way I was taught, and is the method I gravitate to unless I am extremely diligent.

AD Coleman, the famed photography critic, does not even consider photography as an artistic effort to exist unless some variation of this process has occurred. The only pictures he considers as a photographer's oeuvre are the ones that were, in some meaningful way, prepared for publication under the direction of the photographer. All the archive-mining going on is something else, something he rejects.

Again, I feel that urge.

And yet, at the same time, by far the majority of photographs made are spontaneous gestures that partake of little-to-none of this stuff. And yet, at the same time, archive-mining occurs and produces objects, collections, gallery shows.

To simply wave your hand and declare that none of this is legitimate strikes me as absurd. It's here, and it's not going away.

This 20th century approach to photography has done a great deal of damage along the way. Alongside the billions who take pictures freely, without artifice, are the millions who have read these think pieces. Those millions earnestly work away according to the book, and produce well made, extremely studied, garbage. There are millions, even billions, of photos which on the one hand demand our attention with their production values, their careful framing, and their earnestness, and which yet mean nothing. They have sacrificed their freshness, their spontaneity, for nothing.

It is a new era, and there is much more to photography that black and white large format film photography, and the pale imitations of that process which sombre men with grey beards urge upon us.

Modern photographs are not, as a rule, intended to be examined. They are ephemera, to be glanced at. Impressionistic glimpses of something, a momentary view, like the rows of a cornfield as you drive past. Every now and then the corn stalks align along another diagonal and for a fleeting moment, order emerges from chaos, and then is gone again. This is OK, you're allowed to do this. You're also welcome to do the shoot/edit/suffer cycle! Go for it! Nobody's stopping you from making cubist paintings, either, go nuts.

It is a personal struggle of mine, to navigate my impulse to be Walker Evans all over again, and to free myself to make spontaneous, disposable, gestures. I do find that the latter produces things I like a lot better.

The work of my own that I like the best is made in motion. It might be studied, it might be organized into something, but it's made in motion. When I am making final photos I generally just snap them. I don't edit heavily, I shoot lightly. I certainly don't work a vast archive down to a few photos. I might make a lot of intermediate photos, photos to be rephotographed or whatever, but the finals are final. I might throw 50% of finals out.

I shoot, I move things around, print, think, organize, shoot, organize. But I never sit in a mud hut with work prints on the wall. I do not sit, there is nothing static about how I work. I move, I shoot, and then it's done. Either it's good or bad, but it's done.

And I'm an old guy, trained in the old ways.

What might those darn kids do if we stopped telling them the mud hut thing?

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Balenciaga Ad!

Balenciaga, the luxury brand, definitely goes hard sometimes. I've talked about their ads before.

They put togther a little ad campaign, which includes these photos. Crappy screenshots are all that there is, because they pulled the little campaign immediately.

At first glance, there's not a lot going on here. At second glance, maybe you notice that the teddy bears the kids are holding are actually handbags, and that they (the bears, not the kids) seem to be wearing bondage gear.

In the last photo, there's a bunch of paperwork. The nearest bit, at the bottom of the frame, appears to be something related to a court case around kiddie porn, specifically "United States vs. Williams (2008)" in which the Supreme Court upheld some details about what is considered banned speech. I think the gist is that, in some cases, material that is not actually pornographic or obscene or whatever is nevertheless banned if it's sufficiently adjacent to kiddie porn in some sense that probably does not matter here.

Nobody knows what the rest of the paperwork says, because that's not the bait. The bait is in the bit at the bottom of the frame.

Anyways, sure, there's probably some "in-joke" cosplay embedded in here about whether or not they're engaged in banned speech, which they pretty obviously are not.

This has, of course, generated millions of dollars in free marketing for Balenciaga because internet scolds have very little else to do with their time. According to the now-standard script Balenciaga has pulled the ads, issued an apology, and blamed a nameless third party.

The reality is that they leaked it, of course. The "smoking gun" text contains nothing about kiddie porn, you actually have to search it up, or be pretty familiar with Supreme Court decisions around kiddie porn to make the connection. The word "sex" appears several times, but there's no reference to children visible at all.

Here is the full text of the smoking gun, which is the right-hand edge of a partial sheet of paper:

…estion that it is occurring.
…use is not sexual inter-
… but rather sexual inter-
… ed, even though (through
… ay not actually have oc-
… a reasonable viewer to
…aged in that conduct on
… e Speech Coalition,
… visual depiction of
… although the sexual
…t must involve actual
… This change eliminates any
…ld pornography or sex
…ors might be covered by the term

…statute, as we have con-
…l amount of protected

..are categorically
…ons, 413
<illegible, maybe “…is”>

Somehow, the sleuths got from this to "kiddie porn" immediately. Hmm. I wonder how that happened. The only possible is the line "...ld pornography" which is ambiguous, and anyways the leading ell is pretty much illegible.

It occurs to me, a little later, that the papers in the background might be from the same case, and that the actual smoking gun is back there. The idiot influencer they slipped the story to may have picked up some random stick instead of the actual smoking gun, but it doesn't matter because once the connection is made the actual court decision can be found easily and the connection can be confirmed and nobody is going to notice that the shill picked up the wrong thing and blew their cover.

Ok, so this ad campaign is basically some kids holding teddy bears in bondage, which would be a little outré but whatever. Nobody would care. Slip in a paper with some text on it that refers to an Supreme Court decision around child porn, and it definitely changes the color of the ads. The decision, recall, tightens law around child porn, in response to an earlier decision that loosened it.

The content of the ads, we must admit, refers to kiddie porn. Obliquely, subtly, but it absolutely does.

Does it take any sort of position on kiddie porn? It does not. The Internet Scolds are, of course, going on at length about how Balenciaga is promoting child molestion and so on, but this is not content that is present in the photos.

Balenciaga essentially stood up, whispered "kiddie porn," and sat back down. That's it.

Is this tasteful? No, it is not. Does it consititute promoting kiddie porn, human trafficking, child molestation?

There is a school of thought that says you cannot say "kiddie porn" without appending a lengthy dissertation about how bad it is, and failure to do the second part is literally the same thing as supporting it. This school of thought is supremely dumb, but it definitely exists.

It is interesting to see how the hidden detail alters the sense of the thing, though. The photos become not merely kids holding teddy bears, and not even merely kids holding mommy's funny joke teddy bear, but the miasma of kiddie porn rather does infuse the whole thing. Since the photos steadfastly refuse to take a stand, and I think we can state that pretty unambiguously — references are present that introduce the subject, but there are no pro- or anti- signals, we are free to project whatever we want onto them.

Naturally, the scolds are doing their best to generate value for Balenciaga by projecting a "pro-" stance onto the photos, and dramatically freaking out and offering up long twitter threads of art history explaining how this has been a problem forever.

Meanwhile, Balenciaga's customers, who are mostly in China, and who almost uniformly do not give a single shit what the scolds think, are getting fed a steady diet of "Balenciaga is an edgy luxury brand, you should consider buying shoes from them."

It's solid marketing work. It's tasteless, and I'm not in favor. I admire the craft, though, I admire the craft.

Further information suggests that the legal documents appear in a completely different section of the web site in a completely separate ad campaign, and were never remotely adjacent to the pictures with the kids. No idea what to make of this, if true. It is possible that we're seeing a "story" about a free speech lawyer who wears Balenciaga shoes and owns Balenciga bags, in one section of the web site, and a completely different story about kids on another, unrelated, section of the same web site, and that Professional Scolds are simply mashing them together.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022


My piece on the not-so-planted alarm clock in the Walker Evans photo is up on AD Coleman's blog. Long-time readers will have seen one or more variations on this piece here, over the years, but I finally got around to writing it up with footnotes and no swearing, and AD generously published it for me.

Read it here: Photocritic: The Case of the Appropriate Alarm Clock

I hope this puts the issue to bed, at least for me.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

The Shadow Selfie!

I don't care if shadow selfies are portraits or not, because that only depends on what you mean when you say "portrait." No, what I am interested in at the moment is what they actually are.

When a shadow of a human appears at the bottom of the frame, in the right place, it strikes us as the shadow of the photographer. While the presence of the photographer is always implicit in a photo, such a shadow tends to reify the presence, to make it explicit. At the very least, it tends to draw our attention to the fact of the photographer, and the accompanying fact that someone was looking at whatever we're looking at.

The window metaphor recedes, and a sort of seeing-through-another's-eyes comes forward.

This was exploited to great effect in the book Predator by one Jean-Marie Donat, who made a whole book of found photos in which the shadowed figure is wearing a hat. The photos are frequently of children, or young women. But really anything works, after a while.

Our natural reaction to any photograph is to invent a story, a world, to contain it. The presence of the shadow invites us to include the photographer in the story, it reminds us of their presence and nudges us to include them. Why are they there? Why are they photographing this, specifically? All of this optional, of course, we can still exclude the photographer. We can simply walk away without making up a story at all. The photograph, nevertheless, nudges us in these directions.

The book's title suggests a possible story for the photographer, a spooky one, and the effect is really quite something. I have not seen the book itself, but I've seen a smattering of photos and it's borderline electrifying. It requires only a single word, and a repeated simple motif to generate an entire creepy world out of what are in the end just a bunch of snapshots made by different people across 50+ years of time.

In general, I think this tends to support my general thesis about how we look at photos, and also has something to say specifically about the shadow-selfie.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Words! Words! Words!

There's a guy who shall remain nameless who is more or less notorious on a segment of social media for posting cute little "prompts for discussion" along with occasional photos from 20th century photographers, and relentless requests to sign up for whatever his latest stupid thing is where he will do the same thing.

It's the prompts that get me. Two recent ones are these:

Do we take a photograph or make it?
If a shadow selfie a portrait?

These are, I hope it is obvious, dumb questions. But why? Well, at least one of them is exhausted, but that's not it.

They are dumb because they are not questions about photography or photographs at all, but rather questions about words. Nobody who takes photographs is at all mystified by the process they use to take pictures. They know how their photographs come to be, in some detail. The question of make vs. take is what word you use to summarize the well understood process, not a question about the nature of the process.

Ditto shadow-selfies. Everyone knows what they are. You photograph your own shadow. That's it. Is it a portrait? That is a question about the meaning of the word portrait not a question about the nature of the shadow-selfie.

You could argue, perhaps, that by asking about the word we are asking about how we think about these photographs and photographic processes, how do we make sense of these objects for ourselves?

Well, ok, maybe, but then why not ask that instead? Asking it in the form of a glib prompt yields a whole spectrum of answers, ranging from "yes" to "no," and that's about it.

My point here is that I suspect a lot of what we think of as "philosophical questions about photography" is in fact just glib blathering about words. The underlying acts and objects are, in context, well understood so perhaps it appears that all that's left to discuss if what language we use to describe it (see also the ongoing "shoot" discourse.)

I claim that there are actually things we don't understand about the underlying objects and processes and that we might could talk about those. People are, as a rule, not fans. Some take the position that these things are not well suited to word-based analysis, but mostly people are just shy of tackling these things.

I'm a guy who arguably uses more words than practically anybody, and arguably way too many, to talk about photography and photographs. I like to think that I'm actually talking and thinking about the underlying nature of the objects and processes, though, and not just stupid language chopping.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Local vs Global

It's depressingly common for artists to do a bunch of shit, and then someone rolls up and says "oh yeah, some guy name Julio in Buenos Aires did that in 1997" and then the artist has to find something new to do. At least, this is the default.

You can wrestle around with your conscience and wonder if you're doing a new variation on Julio's thing, or whatever, but the basic understanding is that It Has Been Done and you'll go down as a mere copycat. There is an underlying assumption here, which is false: that assumption is that everything is done, essentially, on a global stage. Everything must be measured against the global stage.

The fact is that the people who live on my block have never heard of Julio or his work. It may even be that very few people have heard of Julio or his work, but in the Grand Tradition of Art none of this matters. It's been done. You will be revealed at a mere copier of Julio, and that's that. The people on my block will never get to see work of this kind, if we follow this to its logical conclusion. They'll never see Julio's work, because maybe Julio is in the end a pretty minor artist. They'll never see anyone else's either, because nobody wants to copy Julio.

This is deeply stupid.

The very idea of the global stage is fairly stupid. Yes, it's where the money mostly is, 60 billion dollars a year, spread across 3 million people, so everyone's also waiting tables in their spare time. The global stage sucks, everyone is starving, the art isn't really much better, and it's stifling local art because "Julio already did that."

Just make whatever. Honestly, go look Julio up and outright steal his shit. Who cares? Julio might, I suppose, but if so he's dumb. It's not like you're taking anything away from Julio, or that you're making any money in the first place. If you feel bad about it, reference Julio. "Inspired by Buenos Aires artist Julio, you can see his work <here>" or whatever.

Everyone on your block gets to see the cool, or meaningful, or beautiful, thing that Julio invented and that you rediscovered. Nobody loses anything. The world is, in a small way, better for it.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022


I made more stuff for Halloween, and set it out in a local park for people to enjoy, which I guess some did. We (by which I mean mostly me, but other people are semi-interested) are trying to make it a Thing to do up the local small disused park for Halloween. This is what I made.

The arch is about 7-8 feet high in the center, the skulls and demon masks are life sized (the masks are actually my face.) There's electronics behind each skull. One is a disassembled flashy-light spooky-sound-effects thing that was playing through the red horn visible between the leftmost and center skull. You can see the flashy light as well, the silvery rectangle below the leftmost skull.

The center skull played bad piano music, alternating nursery rhymes played badly, "spooky" music, and occasionally Rick Astley, all in bangy piano clips played through the black horn below and slightly right of the center skull, from the guts of a very cheap toy electronic piano. The center skull had red LEDs in its eye sockets that pulsed along to the music.

Here it is on the bench, illustrating its awesomeness.

The rightmost skull just had some fairy lights that were wound around the hand on top of the arch.

The effect, standing under it, was somewhat cacaphonic. Overwhelming might be pushing it, but definitely A Lot.

Note, please, the masses of tiny homonculi climbing to be eaten by the rightmost demon. Thank you.

This skull is about 4 feet tall, 3 feet wide.

The eyes light up and flash and wink and whatnot in an absurdly complex pattern that took far too long to write the software for.

I consider it possible I went a little overboard. It was pretty fun though.