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Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Hazy Skies and Science

I will open strong, with not one but two separate disclaimers.

In primis this is an off-topic post. I will be mentioning art, but not photography.

Secundus I am not a climate change denier, not even slightly. This is not really salient, but a hostile read of the sequel might produce that impression.

There is an article from the Washington Post doing the rounds among the usual enthusiastic idiots. If you can get around the paywall, it's here. It's a breezy newsy report on a scientific paper which I will get to shortly.

Let us begin by briefly summarizing the content of both the news item and the underlying paper. A couple of climate scientists went and looked at some paintings by Monet and Turner, and used more or less standard mechanisms to quantify how "hazy" the atmosphere in the paintings was. It's pretty well established, I guess, that both of these painters leaned more and more toward softly diffused distance over certain periods of their careers. The far-off material in the paintings grew steadily fuzzier over the years.

The scientists also modeled how much air pollution there might have been in London and Paris specifically over those same years, using, I think, coal consumption estimates as a proxy for atmospheric sulfur dioxide levels.

So they had two mathematical models for things we already know: Monet/Turner paintings got fuzzier over time, and smog in London and later Paris increased over the same intervals. Then they applied statistical methods and determined that, lo, the two models were correlated to a moderate degree. The term of art is "61% explained variance" which is a technical term I don't really understand and frankly don't care to. It seems to mean "pretty good but not great correlation."

This is the technical meat of it. Onwards. Let me now dispose of the WaPo piece.

The WaPo piece does manage to summarize the gist of the paper, but fumbles two things. The first is that the "explained variance" is written up thus:

... 61 percent of the contrast changes in the paintings largely tracked with increasing sulfur dioxide concentrations during that time period.

which, well, I don't really grok "explained variance" but I'm pretty sure this isn't it. This sounds a lot like a little more than half the time, the paintings got fuzzier along with the air but that's definitely not what it means. That would be an absolutely shit metric anyway. Imagine, if you will, half the time, the painting's contrast decreased as sulfur dioxide went up, and half the time it increased. That is a description of complete randomness. Whatever "explained variance" means I am pretty sure it's better than that.

The second howler in the WaPo piece is that the author promoted Whistler to an Impressionist which is just wrong. This is one of these weird things where the columnist decided to just add some random shit in for no reason at all. The remaining problems in the WaPo piece are inherited from the underlying paper, which you can read here if you like.

The paper seems to be essentially confused about what its point is, and as a completely separate note is more or less nakedly p-hacking.

If you read anything from the paper itself, I suggest the Conclusions section. The authors seem to be unclear on whether they are using the paintings (treated as in some essentials "realistic") to support evidence of visible smog, or whether they are assuming the reality of the smog, in which case their study suggests that Monet and Turner were more "realistic" painters than supposed. What are we assuming, and what are we deducing from our assumptions?

The answer is, of course, nothing. They've confirmed a loose statistical correlation which we already kind of knew intuitively, but they are unable to deduce anything from it. It's just.. there. The conclusion is just a haphazard attempt to justify a lot of screwing around with measurements and statistics that didn't actually lead to much of anything. I assume the screwing around is top-notch, I didn't check it but it looked complicated and very science-y. It doesn't matter how good the screwing around is, since it doesn't lead anywhere.

Which segues neatly to the p-hacking. What's p-hacking? Well, lemme tell you:

In a lot of science you make some observations, and then you calculate that if things were random you'd only expect to see this particular set of observations 1 time in 20, or 1 time in 100. Thus, the fact that you observed it the first and only time you made them is evidence that things are in fact not random. p-hacking is when you run the experiment 50 times or 100 times or whatever, and throw away all the ones that didn't give you the result you were looking for.

In this case, the authors were looking for painters who were making paintings that depicted hazier and hazier air over roughly the right intervals, and they found a couple of them. They probably didn't actually run the experiments with C├ęzanne, but there's a reason they picked Monet and Turner.

This is, essentially, why the paper is confused. The authors were looking for (and this is pretty clear if you even skim the paper as a whole) evidence of air pollution in paintings. They explicitly got into this study hoping to show that you can literally see increasing air pollution across bodies of painted work. This is a profoundly dumb idea, for pretty obvious reasons. So they inevitably landed on a couple of painters that supported their hypothesis, because the other ones were no good for their purpose. Since painters don't actually work that way they wind up partially re-tasking all their science-y hacking around to argue "Monet and Turner were actually realistic painters" but not very convincingly.

You can run a correlation either way, cause and effect, or effect and cause, but you do need to pick a direction.

There is a more basic problem here, because of the way painters do actually work. What the paper's model of air quality aims to show is that, on average, the atmosphere got hazier. That is, if over the relevant interval you'd gone out and randomly sampled the air now and then, on average in some meaningful way you'd see a rise in haziness. On this day it might be perfectly clear, on another hardly breathable; the average haziness week-on-week or year-on-year or something would on the other hand steadily go up.

The trouble is that Monet and Turner were not sampling things at random! They were painting the looks that they preferred, on the days those looks showed up. Both the WaPo piece and the paper quote Monet going on at some length to the effect that he wants as much fog as possible. He is, according to evidence quoted in the actual paper, definitely not painting when the air is clear. This is the opposite of random.

In order for the argument to make any sort of sense, you have to somehow argue that Monet and Turner were depicting "typical" atmosphere or something like that, which while possible is a bit of a stretch. See the Monet quote, in which he implies the opposite. It's entirely possible that they both leaned in, completely by accident, harder and harder to hazier air (which is fun to paint, and which really makes distant things look distant!) at the same time the air actually did get hazier. All the painters that were not leaning in to hazier but instead found the increasing smog frustrating are conveniently left out of the study.

This paper is pretty obviously the kind of interdisciplinary work where the authors are hoping that each side thinks the meat must be on the other side. As long as the climate scientists think it's an art history paper, and the art historians think it's a climate science paper, all is well.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

On "Conversation"

This post here is responding to a post on petapixel, written by Simon King, which post you might read here. I will provide a summary of sorts, so reading it might be more of a checking-my-work situation.

There is, among a certain subset of "documentary" photographers, something of a trend to trash more or less everyone else doing documentary photography with accusations of "not doing the work" and of being exploitive or violent or whatever. This is, usually, badly argued to the point of being nearly copypasta, and transparently little more than a whinge to the effect that "major museums are not buying my photographs of homeless people even though I am awesome and did do the work." King's piece reads a bit like this, but upon a more careful read, he's actually doing a better job.

King starts out by doing something somewhere between pointing out and complaining about the occasional refrain "I am starting a conversation around <issue>." This is indeed a thing documentary photographers drag out sometimes to justify uninteresting pictures around social issues we all know about already. Visualize, if you like, bog-standard photos of homeless guys panhandling. The scruffy hair, the outstretched cup, the insanely cranked local contrast. You know the ones. Well, sure, this is a stupid refrain.

King argues, more or less correctly, that you're not starting a conversation at all. The best you can do is join an existing conversation (but more on this in a moment.) He proposes, and this is where the argument is quite sound, that to join an existing conversation you should probably listen in for a bit and enter smoothly, rather than simply barging in with whatever dumb idea just popped into your head. This is a pretty cogent analogy/argument for "doing the work." He took rather a lot of words to get here, but ok.

He gives some examples, and notably lands on Minamata which, to my surprise, he correctly describes not as starting a conversation, but as bringing a conversation to a new audience, into places where the conversation was not being had. Mostly, people think the book broke the story, which it absolutely did not. It didn't even break it in the USA, but it did transport the conversation to a new audience in a meaningful way.

This is a pretty good observation on King's part, but unfortunately it undermines his previous, fairly cogent, argument. The point here is that while yes there is a conversation ongoing, about let us say homelessness, and while you might could contribute to the ongoing discourse, that's not all there is. You could also find a new audience, people who have never really thought about it, people who don't know much about the issue, and offer them more or less the standard primer, as a way of... wait... starting a conversation there. There's always someone who doesn't know about whatever the thing is, and there's sound work to be done bringing a contemporary primer, phrased in ways that resonate with that new audience, to those people. Just like Minamata did.

What if every shitty instagram account of shitty pictures of homeless people opened just one person's eyes a little? What if it moved one person to donate $10 to the local food bank? Would that be enough? How much good does a photo have to do to be justified? Ultimately, who cares even if it does that much? Virtually no photographs move the needle on anything. Almost zero of the photographs that get published on the front page of a national newspaper move the needle on anything. It doesn't seem to actually matter much.

In the end, this only matters if you think photos are somehow doing some harm. If they're literally just rectangles of tone and color blobs, who gives a shit? Oh no! It failed to start a conversation! Yeah, the french fries I ate the other day didn't either, and nobody's complaining about those. Yes, it's annoying when goobers make more or less false claims about the weight of their photographs, but to an extent they're trying to justify their pictures because a bunch of puritan assholes have told them they must.

Generally speaking, the homeless guy with his hand out wasn't harmed by this photo, or by any of the other 150 photos of him that people have taken (he's very picturesque.) Those photos need no justification, and our contemporary obsession with justifying photos isn't doing anyone any good. Just let them be pointless rectangles of tone and color blobs. Nobody cares, nobody's getting hurt, nobody's losing anything. It's just some guy with a camera.


Wednesday, January 18, 2023

On Fashion

Consider the theater. This ancient form, for all I know, predates speech. Certainly the acting-out of stories is a deeply human activity, which was old when people started writing stuff down. It seems an essentially human way to experience stories. It is certainly fun, but I think it functions in quite a different way from story-telling.

When we watch a play, we're seeing someone playacting King Lear or whatever. They're not actually a king at all, usually. It is artifice. We see the gestures, the figures moving about, the body language. We hear the tone of the voice, and so on. From these clues we deduce, we imagine, the emotional states and other whatnots. Even in a very literal way: it's not that the "Lear is Angry" it is that the actor playing Lear is pitching his voice and grimacing in a way that we read as "angry"; we construct the interpretation of anger from the stream of things we perceive.

Notably we do not imagine (or at least, I don't imagine) any parallel set of visuals to go with the story. What our imagination produces is the submerged meaning, the emotions, the motivations, the material that has occurred off stage, and so on. We augment what we perceive with dreams of everything we do not perceive.

Contrast this with reading a novel. The words tell us something, and in some sort of parallel way we imagine the same submerged material together with something like loose visuals. The words, though, frequently make explicit the submerged material. In the novelization, Lear might "gesture angrily." The visuals I imagine to go with a novel are, I must confess, extremely vague. I might have a vague sense that some character is tall or short, or loud, or something, but I don't meaningfully "see" them in my mind's eye. But the submerged emotional stuff? Yeah, I definitely construct that from the explicit text as well as gap-filling work in my imagination. You have to, to make any sense out of the thing, right? Whether you're watching it or reading it.

Theater is, in a kind of partial way, the inverse of reading a novel. Watching theater, from the visual and aural perceptions you dream up the emotional, submerged, meaning, Reading a book, from the emotional content, whether submerged or explicit, you dream up the visuals. Kinda.

From this perspective, movies are theater one step removed, mediated by celluloid, but that doesn't really matter. From the perception of the (mediated) pseudo-reality presented, you dream the meaning into being. "Described video" occupies a place here, but I don't know quite what.

From this, slightly removed, perspective, photography works the same way again. You perceive a thing like reality, mediated through the photo, and dream the meaning into being. This is my central thesis on photography.

I want now to examine the difference between theater and movies a little.

In the theater, watching Lear, there is a certain visceral sense of reality. They're actually there! It's real! At the same time, though, the actor playing Lear is palpably here and not there in Lear's Britain. You could, if you were quick and agile enough, go punch him in the nose right now. Film, contrariwise, separates us from the action. Indeed, traditional film-making endeavors to create the world-of-Lear inside the film, on the other side of the portal the screen presents us. If we could somehow pass through, we would be in that world, where Lear is real.

Filming a play creates a weird mixture, in which the portal leads not to Lear's world, but to a theater somewhere, in which an actor is playing Lear. This, I suspect, is why filming plays pretty much doesn't work. It's just weird.

A movie, at least one constructed in the standard way, offers us a frame through which we peer into a fictional but coherent, complete, separate, world. Certainly we have to imagine that the world extends off the edges of the screen, and not into a welter of light stands and microphone booms, but that's kind of what we do. Just as we do with a photograph, we extend the world outward from the frame, filling it in imaginatively.

So what is Fashion photography?

It begins, of course, with a model on a set. The model is play-acting some sort of role, projecting emotion and so on. This is not unlike a play or a movie set, but generally with a lot less narrative. There's something going on, though. Cues are being given, so that we may perceive them and interpret those submerged, emotional/whatever, things. This is photographed, in the manner of a movie. A frame is wrapped around a constructed world, the world of the model and the model's play-acting. We then peer through the portal, through that frame, into this world which we know to be false.

If well done, we find ourselves willing to imagine into existence the world the character inhabits. Not the model, but the character the model is playing. We imagine into existence the emotional material, the physical reality of a world, and so on.

It's recognizably different from a documentary photograph, but it covers a great deal of the same material, somehow. Other than "we know the world in the picture to be false" it all seems to be pretty much the same.

The essential feature here, it seems to me, is that we're given a set of perceivable cues from which we construct meaning, from which we construct the fictional world and the meaning of that world. The character is austere, intelligent, wealthy. Or dumb and exciting. Whatever.

There is something fundamental about the way construct meaning from perception. There is something different about being told "Lear gestured angrily" and seeing Lear gesture angrily, something deeply human and satisfying, something which makes fashion photography work. The very functioning of fashion photography is rooted precisely here. Being told that the blouse is sewn from luxurious fabric is somehow not as persuasive as seeing it, as deducing for ourselves that the fabric is, that the fabric feels, luxurious.

What about Avedon and his revealed backdrops, eh? Hmm.

Friday, January 13, 2023

A Few Notes

Tim Vanderweert has died. He was the proprietor of the excellent Leicaphilia blog forever, he wrote well, photographed well. I reviewed his book, Car Sick, recently. Tim was scheduled to die much earlier, so when he failed to do so I was able to write the long-put-off review in time for him to read it, which was very nice. I liked him, and I liked his work. He was wrong about Barthes, but everyone except me is, so I don't hold that against him. We are poorer for his loss.



In other news, I have lately taken up drawing. Well, I draw more seriously now, or at least more regularly. I'm trying to make it a daily habit, but I'm up to about 50% so far.

I am not very good at drawing, but that doesn't much matter. While it's true that I hope to get usefully better at it in the long run, the main point at the moment is to get better at observing. As near as I can tell, drawing is essentially an exercise in observation. There's a certain modest amount of hand-eye co-ordination involved, but I don't seem to have any trouble there. Where my drawings fail, and they all fail, is almost invariably a lack of observation. I have failed to notice that this line is parallel with that one, that these two features align thus, this the relative sizes of this form and that are so, and not thus. And so on.

I draw, quickly, and then I photograph. Then I compare the two, and make notes. I think I'm getting better at observing, although this may of or not be showing up in the actual drawings. Usually the drawing is too chubby. I probably should practice more before trying to draw my wife.



The hope here is that by being better at observing, I will become better at photographing. We always say, repeating it like idiot robots, that photography is reeeeeeally just seeeeeeing, right?



In a third item of news, I am working up a newsletter, because I think it's both funny and kind of fun. I perceive a possibly non-existent gap in the market: for a daily almanac style of art-history tidbits, in roughly the style of Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac. There are any number of people out there who are looking for social media clout by appearing to know something about art, so this newsletter exists to service those people. For $50 a year or $5 a month, you can get a weekly newsletter of artisanal, glib, art-history snippets to copy to your own social media to impress the rubes.

There's also a free monthly, that has a smaller list of items. I recommend this one. If you ask nicely I'll give you a free sub to the paid version too.

If you know anyone who's seriously into engagement farming on social media and needs some content, please send them to Gliblets. I suppose teachers and newsletter writers and whatnot could use it too. I dunno. It seems like a kind of thing that people could use. Obviously, feel free to send me money, but if I know you even slightly I'll hand you gift subscriptions like cookies because, whatever.

It's been kind of fun groveling out a large database of Little Facts and reverse indexing them by date. I know a lot, ok a little, more art history, and I will probably glean more as I write up weekly newsletters!

Saturday, January 7, 2023

Radical Sincerity

Something John Berger simply won't shut up about is some generalized notion of sincerity, of honesty, of genuineness. Art, as near as I can tell, he evaluates almost entirely on whether or not it can persuade him that it is sincere, in some hard-to-grasp way. He sounds like an inversion of Holden Caulfield: instead of railing against the phonies, Berger praises only the non-phonies.

This is certainly something I find as I muck around, struggling to do art-like things that have gravitas and meaning.

On the one hand, the point isn't actually to be sincere, but to persuade the viewer that one is sincere. On the other hand, it seems as if actually doing the thing might be the simplest way to persuade viewers that one is doing it. Also, of course, I am the first and most engaged member of my own audience, and I am rather more difficult to fool about my own intentions. I wish to be sincere, to be genuine, to be honest, whatever squishy weird thing that might mean.

This is something that showed up in my time at Antidote last fall. I think it's possible that every single person said something about it, possibly prompted by me. I arrived, after all, with the goal of wrestling with this exact, specific, thing, however nebulous it is. It's not that I need to be humorless, or to discard cynicism, or whatever, but I don't want to be superficial about it.

Whatever sincerity is, I am pretty sure it includes caring what people think about your art-like work. It should hurt if they don't like it, I think. Is it because whatever this nebulous "sincerity" thing is includes a commitment to getting through to people, so when that fails, it feels personal? Not sure. This doesn't seem to be quite what Berger is on about, although it might be a consequence. It all kind of comes down to "Millet was awesome at peasants because Millet was a peasant."

This shows up in anything we might consider conceptual art, and I think there it boils down to little more than a belief in your concept. If you don't believe in whatever it is you're trying to communicate, believe it truly, deeply, madly, than your work is going to struggle to be good. There was a lot of anti-Trump art made which struck me as in a sense insincere — not because I think the artist secretly loved Trump, but rather because the point was to say the "right things" rather than to say what they actually believed, even though these were often pretty much the same.

This, I suppose, is why contrarian art is in some sense easier. It's obvious that you're not numbly following a trend, you must believe something, surely? Also, there is a sense that, in defying the common trends, you open yourself to criticism and suffering, so, surely you must be truly committed to whatever the idea is? Of course, by the same tokens, contrarianism can become another cheap road to false gravitas.

Anyway. You gotta believe. You gotta be honest and true, and it's got to show.

I think..