Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Vandalism and Local Art

A couple days ago, I guess, some protestors entered the National Gallery (the British one, not the American one) and had a go at a painting, because that's a thing we're doing now. To be clear, I don't think people ought to do this in general, and I don't think these protests make any sense. It's clearly just a "bit" the kids have settled on.

That said, it raises in my mind the question of who actually cares? There's been an outcry, of course, about our cultural heritage and so on. These valuable artifacts must be preserved, and their destruction is a crime against humanity! I've seen calls for much more vigorous security arrangements, which seems like a terrible idea to me. I don't really want angry, tense, guards on a hair trigger.

What, exactly, is the value that any of these paintings is bringing? I'll accept extremely abstract answers! I'm not here to reduce culture to dollars or to British pounds. Did the Rokeby Venus enlarge anyone's life? Does a Monet? I am, for reference, extremely pleased that these things existed! I am pleased that they exist, and I don't think people should destroy them! At the same time, I am not entirely sure why we should mourn their loss. There is no "mysterious air" here, it's just a picture.

If the painting had been, instead of vandalized, suddenly revealed to be a modern forgery, well, what then? The painting would quietly vanish from the walls, and the consensus would surely be that Culture writ large has been Improved rather than Impoverished. And yet, it would be the same painting. The fact that we believe it to be authentic seems to be an essential feature of whatever actual value it's bringing to us. Berger covers all this in "Ways of Seeing" of course, with his marvelous takedown of da Vinci's "The Virgin of the Rocks," it's not new with me.

Functionally, the Rokeby Venus has been the subject of a few million glazed-over glances, a few hundred art student sketches, and a very small handful of the weeping fans. What its current existence does for Culture is pretty vague.

Also, the mirror looks like a fucking head in a box, not a mirror. Dude, wtf were you thinking?

The history of the thing is pretty interesting! It occupies a notable position in art history! Something something nudes Spanish Inquisition, you can read all about it on wikipedia. The physical artifact on the wall doesn't seem to be particularly relevant to that, though, except as a sort of moral anchor to the story, a reification of the story. It performs the role of a photo illustrating a news item.

Let us compare, though, with an annual event here in Bellingham, the 6x6 show hosted by our local art store.

This is an open show. You can pick up a 6 inch by 6 inch square of one of several materials, for free, from the art store. Cover it with art. Anything. Paint it, carve it, attach sculpture to it, sew it. Return it to the shop, they'll give you a coupon for future purposes as a reward, and they'll hang your work. Zero curation, everything goes up. They have a show for about a month with a grid of 100s of 6x6 artworks on the wall of their gallery. You can buy any piece for $25. Proceeds to a local art non-profit.

The work is everything from 5 year old kids scribbling with crayons to professional working artists painting small landscapes. One piece was made by the artist's pet snails crawling around with pigment.

It is, easily, my favorite Art Thing in the world.

I'm now going to stealthily replace the Rokeby Venus with Monet, because the position of Monet in our culture while similar is more immediately salient. You won't have to think as much.

I put things in the 6x6 show, and so do my kids. I am, this year, the only photographer (I think) in something like 470 pieces. Which is wild! My kids draw/paint stuff. Usually, nobody buys anything we put in, about which more anon.

But what about this small, often poorly made, extremely local, art? It hits quite differently from a Monet. I could write at length about why a Monet is "better" but at the same time some child's crude drawing of a frog has its own intense value. At the bottom, the Monet and the Frog are the same: a piece of decor, with the potential to move us emotionally, to enlarge us as humans. They are the same in that both Claude and the child, let's call her Susie, essentially wanted to show us what something looked like: A Garden, A Frog.

There are endless details of scale, of technique, of scope of imagination, and so on that could be brought to bear to show how the two paintings are different, and one much superior. Mostly, though, the Monet painting is superior because the people we pay to tell us what's superior have said that it is superior.

Looking at a Monet can hit pretty hard! The effect is real! I love Monet, and have travelled to see Monet paintings! At the same time, though, a part of what I experience is the cultural baggage, the stamp of approval from the curatorial staff of various museums, the stamp of approval from critics and historians. The Frog hits differently, it has no baggage.

Nevertheless, it manifests with awful clarity the sincerity of the artist. The Monet and The Frog both reveal the will, shared by Susie and Claude, to show us what something looks like. Looking at Monet, the cloud of cultural baggage tends to obscure this will; looking at Susie's Frog nothing is obscured. There is a reason theorists and critics are obsessed with the ways children draw. There is an authenticity, a clarity of purpose, a purity of method (as it were) that a more thoroughly educated artist, or even art appreciator, loses.

Monet is in a sense sealed in amber and elevated to a pedestal. We cannot but react to the paintings, because we're told to do so. Monet is distant. You literally have to take a trip to see a Monet. For $25 I can have Susie's Frog in my home, over my desk, and look at it every day by raising my chin slightly. Susie's Frog was made here, in my town, by a child who probably lives no more than 2 miles away from me. There is an immediacy here, a nearness. Susie's Frog is a radically different cultural artifact than is a Monet painting, and in many ways it's much more salient.

Looking at a Monet can be a powerful experience, but in the end I leave the gallery and return to my life much as I was before. This kind of High Culture, as defined and managed by the priesthood, feels like a separate track, a kind of entertainment I can step into when I want to, but which doesn't live and breathe with me, with us. It has nothing to do with my daily life, with the daily clockwork of my little town.

Something is lost when an artist matures. The childish authenticity fades as the artist works to become more technically proficient, to make something look real; or perhaps the artist is trying to imbue their work with some sort of abstract meaning. Passing "beyond" the desire to show you what a frog looks like, the mature artist tries to make the frog look "real" or tries to make the frog stand in for something else.

This is, of course, the business of High Art, but damn is it hard. Many, perhaps most, artists spend a long time in the doldrums between childish directness and the actual ability to make the frog mean something. They're not painting a frog, they're painting a painting of a frog but no more than that.

Interestingly, the pieces that sell quickly at the 6x6 show are exactly these pictures. The realistic but ultimately kind of empty paintings of bicycles or boats, the well-made pictures with silly jokes, and so on. I like these things too, but I don't much want to own one. As well, there are certainly a few artists in play who are genuinely injecting meaning and depth into their well made pictures, and those sometimes sell as well. The childish frogs don't really sell, which is in a way a pity. I dare say people want to have something that's obviously well made, rather than something clumsy. Perhaps they're not very interested in the art children make; their loss.

In the end, I love 6x6 more than anything else Arty, because it hits inside my world, rather than outside it. It's Art that lands inside my life, my existence, not outside it in some temple to culture, not on a track that is parallel to my life, but actually on the rails my life runs on.

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

The War for Culture

I've stumbled over a few items randomly, which just coalesced into something in my head, so, here we go.

Sam Bankman-Fried, currently on trial for operating an enormous kinda-Ponzi scheme in the crypto world (it doesn't seem to have been as coherent and organized as even a proper Ponzi, it seems to have simply been a sort of maelstrom of money that leaked a lot until the money was gone) is having his private conversations closely analyzed. As some point he seems to have written something or other about Shakespeare, arguing that so many humans have been born since Shakespeare that, statistically, there must have been many better writer after Shakespeare.

This illustrates a profound failure to understand how culture arises. Interestingly, while everyone had a good time making fun of Sam, I didn't see anyone offer a coherent explanation of why he was wrong. I plan to correct that here!

Second item: there's a guy, Devon Rodriguez, who's made something of a name for himself drawing and painting People On The Street. He's all over social media, and if you're looking for youtube videos on drawing portraits you're gonna have a hard time avoiding this guy's useless videos. He's a skilled technician, but mainly he's a social media presence.

He has millions of followers, and the backing of at least one NYC real-estate developer, and so he got a little popup show for his paintings. This show was reviewed on artnet by some hapless critic, who pointed out that the paintings were not very good, and went on about social media influence.

Devon's PR machine, noting an opportunity, decided to pull out the "I won't let the haters stop me!" page from the Social Media Influencers Handbook, and has been running that play for a while.

Here again we see the intersection of "Culture" in the form of Art and Criticism of Same with something more populist.

Finally let us recall that Larry Gagosian got himself a pretty girlfriend, painter Anna Weyant, a hair older than 1/3 of his age, and appears to be trying to make her into a Major Painter using his credentials as an art dealer. Weyant appears to be a significantly more interesting painter than Rodriguez, and is also a fine technician, so I don't really have a sense of whether she's "good" or not, in any way that makes much sense to me.

Let's keep these three little examples in mind.

Culture, contrary to common understanding, is not a distillation of the finest products of the finest creative talents, elected by some alchemy that inexorably whittles away the inferior and reliably, eventually, locates the best. It's just not. It's a hell of a lot more venal than that.

Bankman-Fried missed the point about Shakespeare: we have defined him to be great. Yes, the work is technically good, the meter or whatever you want to name is excellent. Shakespeare is great largely because, for him, the standard is how much like Shakespeare are you? Obviously, he is the best at being like Shakespeare. The attentive observer might wonder out loud how much of "Shakespeare was really good at specific important technical things" is actually "these specific technical things are important because Shakespeare was good at them." It's fair to suggest that there's a bit of push and pull going on here.

Larry Gagosian's efforts on behalf of Anna Weyant are specifically interesting, because Larry is absolutely a member of the club of people who get to decide things like "who are the really great painters anyway?" He's not the only member, though!

And finally we get around to Rodriguez. He has essentially no backing from anyone in that club, but he has a lot of social media followers, and he's got some rich people in his corner. Rich people who would probably like to be members of the taste-making club, rich people who probably go to some of the same parties that Larry Gagosian attends.

What interests me here, though, is whether we're seeing something larger.

Why should a small club of goobers like Gagosian be in charge of High Culture? There certainly seem to be days when they're picking shit at random (abstract expressionism? really?) and there's really no doubt that they do a lot of selection based on how hot and/or slutty the artists are. Why shouldn't TikTok select the Important Artists?

The crypto bros made a brave attempt to seize a beachhead in Culture with NFTs. Unfortunately for them they were thoroughly embedded in the crypto world, which turns out to be 100% scams, and also their art was really really terrible shit, not even rising to the level of kitsch. It wasn't even populist, it was just dumb. The try was bold, though, and it looked like it might work for a while! Beeple and his dumb $69 million dollar whateverthefuck looked like a real thing for a minute (before we learned that it too was a scam, oops.)

I don't much like Rodriguez, in part because his work isn't very interesting (it all looks like it's an excellent copy of some extremely bland reference photo, and some people think that's because they are in fact excellent copies of extremely bland reference photos.) I also dislike him, though, because his videos gum up the search for "how the hell do I draw a nose" with what are essentially ads for his work and his classes. I just want a few pointers on how to draw a nose!

My opinion, though, should not really carry any weight. Who gives a shit what I think?

The very idea is insane that these things should be decided a small group of people with degrees in art history, and an even smaller group of wealthy assholes who've eased their way into advising even wealthier assholes about which art to buy. Why should this specific group be in charge of determining what we see when we go into museums and galleries? Especially the museums and galleries funded by our tax dollars! Maybe we should be seeing a lot more kitsch!

On the other hand, there seems to genuinely be value in some small group making insane selections, however venal the reasons, for future generations. Maybe it doesn't matter what gets picked, as long as it's weird enough, as long as it's not populist kitsch. Maybe the job is simply to weed out things that are easy to like and pick some vaguely coherent selection of stuff that's hard to like. Future generations then have something to think about, something to struggle with. I think I'd rather live in a culture where we have abstract expressionism to gape at, than a culture were it's all likable kitsch.

In general I would rather see the collapse of Art As High Culture. I believe in local art. Rodriguez would do well as a Local Artist. He's entertaining, people like his pictures. I think people should totally be able to buy his pictures, sit for portraits, whatever. I don't think we would be well-served by making him into a Great Artist to Stand With Monet, but then, I'm not sure we're well served by the very idea that artists should be elevated to some stratosphere.

But my opinion doesn't matter. This isn't the first time populist art has made an assault on the cathedral, and it won't be the last. It'll be interesting to see how it shakes out, I guess.

Friday, September 15, 2023

The Photo Grift

A number of threads of thought crystallized this morning, abruptly. Let's see if I can write them down.

In 1800s quite a number of photographers mostly took pictures and were paid for pictures and that was that. Gradually companies formed to supply those photographers, and those companies presumably made money. There were amateurs, to be sure, but they knew who they were, and there weren't all that many of them in relative terms.

In the 1900s the number of amateurs exploded. Kodak and others enabled a several generations of nerdy fellows to take up the Hobby Of Photography. Magazines evolved to serve them, camera manufacturers built cameras and advertised in the magazines, and so on. A whole economic thing arose to serve the enthusiast. And, to be sure, many of those enthusiasts aspired to "go pro" in some sense, but most of them didn't. It was a hobby.

By the time I arrived on the scene the industry was largely funded by amateur photographers. They bought cameras, film, and magazine subscriptions, and that was the money that made the industry hum. Yes, Vogue bought photos and paid photographers, but that was not the engine that drove the industry.

Enter the digital camera. Suddenly everyone with disposable income could be a photographer. You didn't need a darkroom, you didn't need to be particularly dweeby, it became a normal, even cool, thing for basically anyone to do. Good! How fun! Now you can enjoy my hobby too!

A little later youtube arrives and the concept of a "content creator" shows up about the same time.

Poeple are blogging and setting up forums and so on. We start to see guys like Michael Reichmann on the scene.

At this point there is a substantial shift. It's no longer pretty much just photography companies selling cameras and film to hobbyists. It's Content Creators and Influencers selling workshops, memberships, subscriptions, and advertisements. It's a money spinner. Anyone can play. Set up a web site, crib some articles from someplace else, and watch the money roll in!

Well, not quite. You have to be both lucky, and skilled at being a Content Creator. It wouldn't hurt you to be pretty good at photography (Reichmann was a skilled technician, for example) but it honestly isn't even required.

In the background here there is a constant thrum of "you could go pro, you could make money at photography, all you need is whatever it is that I am selling." I don't even know why this turned up. I think maybe the Content Creators felt the need to justify their revenue, which they couldn't on the basis on their fairly thin content.

I don't mean to suggest that in 1990 everyone was an innocent and happy hobbyist without a thought of going pro, and that 20 years later it's some Lord of the Flies situation with everyone desperate to become a Pro Photographer. Not at all. But there's been a shift in mood. The vague hope, the idea, is a little more present. Maybe a lot more.

You could probably point at economic conditions, maybe everyone's a little more hungry, a little more on the lookout for a quick buck. I dunno. It doesn't matter, because the point is that it's a thing.

Anyways, to my eye from the 2010s there was an enormous wave of Content Creators attempting to take money off of photographers who were themselves looking for fame and/or fortune. The main thing to note here is that the successful ones were good at being Content Creators; they may or may not have been interested in photography, but whether they were or not doesn't matter. They're "professional" Content Creators which means they have a whole bunch of skills around attracting eyeballs. This is their actual expertise.

In some sense, this is the same as it ever was. It's not like Nikon was giving cameras away in the good old days, they were definitely making money. The difference to my eye is that in the first place when you gave Nikon money you actually got a camera, and in the second place there was less of a "you too could be a pro, you could make money at this." In fact, Nikon had several lines of camera, and only one was explicitly the "many money with this camera" line. The others were all implicitly "have a good time taking photos with these cameras."

In the 2010s you often didn't get anything. You could watch a Tony Northrup video or read a Lloyd Chambers blog post, with the result that you would be older and dumber by the end. You could pay a few thousand dollars for some workshop, with the result that you'd have a folder with 10,000 completely uninteresting photographs of icebergs or whatever. Even then, though, at least everyone was trying to give you some value. Lloyd at least did (does?) detailed if pointless testing. I'm sure Tony thought he was telling you.. something useful?

Somewhere in here MFA programs arose or were retooled based on, apparently, little more than "we can put butts in seats at $10,000 per butt-year" and guys like Colberg got jobs teaching in them. Based on the results it's honestly unclear wtf they were even trying to teach these kids? Most of them, of course, have not become successful artists although many have given a bunch more money to glorified vanity presses. Again, there was at least an attempt to deliver value, kinda. I am sure that Colberg really thought he was helping. I dare say some of his colleagues were more cynical.

And now here we are in the 2020s. At this point to be honest I think everyone's given up, and they're just trying to extract as much money as possible for as little effort as possible.

I, for instance, am apparently still publishing articles on Luminous Landscape (no, I am not, I wrote the piece currently at the bottom of the front page in 2017, not the August 2023 date indicated.) PetaPixel and fstoppers are descending rapidly toward click-farm link-mill stage, with articles about reddit posts and other articles describing videos they found on youtube. The filler doesn't quite dominate. Yet. It will.

Andy Adams, a relentless engagement farmer across many platforms, has a substack newsletter he's making thousands of dollars a year on, which is insipid to the point of transparency but which offers "exposure" to photographers who almost certainly make less money on photography than he does.

And this is the theme. The money flows from photographers to everyone else, the same as it always has.

The difference is that the photographer's aren't getting anything for their money, or for their attention. Andy's newsletter is read by absolutely nobody except your peers, who are all also vaguely hoping to "go pro" or become well known, better known, something, some day. Nobody reads PetaPixel or fstoppers except the same crowd, and on and on. The content available is essentially nil on all fronts, it's just the same recycled drivel, or often literally nothing at all. Newsletters about "how to find inspiration, we interviewed 5 photographers" will tell you it's "light" or "taking a walk." Youtube videos will begin and end with 3 or 4 minutes "like, share, and subscribe" with 2 minutes of content in between which is even more insipid than "I am inspired by the light!"

All of the "content" around photography has been reduced to a way to destroy some time. A ten minute video doesn't do anything except make ten minutes of your life go away. An 800 word blog post makes.. well, how long does it take you to read 800 words? That's how much time it will destroy. It will not make you a better photographer, it will not even entertain you particularly, it will not inform you. At best it will validate some life choice you made, and tell you that you're special (despite the evident fact that you are not.)

All this empty content still produces money for someone. You're paying for it, either with your wallet or your attention. You're getting nothing in return except maybe a little empty validation, a little tease that one day you might be someone.

At least when you went to the Galapagos with Michael Reichmann you got to see some turtles. It mighta cost you $10,000 a turtle, but at least there were turtles.

Monday, September 11, 2023

AD Coleman on Trump's mug shot

AD does a nice analysis of this photo, of just the sort I would do. A little more partisan than I would have written it, but AD's philosophy on that is perfectly clear and to my eye a perfectly reasonable approach. If he were disingenuous, I wouldn't like it, but he's not.

Read it here.

Really, do. It is well worth your time.

Thursday, September 7, 2023

On Visual Literacy

There is a school of thought, largely among the low-rent photo-academics that I so enjoy making fun of, that visual literacy is a thing, a thing which can be learned, ought to be taught, and so on. They say supremely stupid things like "one can read a photo just like a novel" and so on. This is one of those ideas that feels immediately kind of stupid. It gets a lot of its traction because of this, it's a strange but true idea that lets dummies imagine they have access to secret knowledge.

Let's dig in!

The first thing one might think about, if one asked oneself seriously "what is visual literacy actually" is that perhaps it's just about seeing things. A photo, of the sort one reads with ones visual literacy is generally just a picture of some stuff. Perhaps one could just read the stuff?

I am nearly certain that this is never what is meant. To be honest, I'm not 100% on this since these guys never explain what they actually mean, but I'm pretty sure.

Nope, visual literacy is specifically about the photo. It fits into that narrow gap between just looking at stuff, and just looking at a piece of paper with blotches on it. It's about decoding the photographer's methods and choices. What did the photographer choose to represent here, when, and what techniques did they apply to render the stuff they're photographing?

At this point even a moment's thought reveals that there cannot actually be any secret knowledge here. Suppose the photographer carefully applies Methods to make the subject look heroic, or venal, or whatever. If this doesn't actually come through to the ordinary citizen, if the sensation that the subject is venal or expensive or whatever does not come through to the untrained eye, the photo has failed. This isn't like a novel, where you're assuming that the person holding it can read the language. We don't encode things in a photo using a system of signs that one learns in school.

Yes, there are signs and tropes that get used, but they're culturally ubiquitous. A low angle and dramatic lighting to make the dude look heroic, or threatening, or whatever? Sure. That's totally a thing. It might be a bit of biology, it's definitely a lot of culture, but the point is that the great unwashed masses who didn't go to your stupid MFA program can read it just fine. They read comic books too.

Visual literacy, if it means anything at all, means that one notices and inventories ones own responses to a photo. The advanced course might conceivably teach us how other cultures, other people, might respond, so that we can imagine their responses and inventory those as well (wait, this sounds a lot like Molitor's theory of criticism, huh.) There cannot be anything interesting about our responses, those must be universal. The literacy arises in that we notice them.

The trouble we run in to immediately here is that we have trouble separating our reactions to the photographic methods and tropes from our reactions to the content itself.

As a critic, I don't see much point in separating those. I am interested in the total effect of the photo on me, and on other people. Trying to comb apart the lighting techniques from the content isn't something I am much interested in.

It is, however, of central importance if you're trying to do visual literacy and decode the Language of Photography or whatever. You can't just be reacting to the content, that's not visual literacy that's just looking at stuff. So, the visually literate academic weirdo has to pretend they're reacting to the way the photo is made, rather than just the contents of the frame.

Case in point, Jörg Colberg's more or less unhinged critique of Helmut Newton.

The underlying drama here is that Colberg is a prude, and also believes that Men should not photograph Women, ever, and especially not Nude Women. Which, you know, ok. He's perfectly entitled to his opinions here, and these are not even particularly odd ideas.

You can, however, see him muddling up the content and the method, constantly. Newton's photos are sexist and misogynistic not because it's a dude photographing women with their clothes off, but because somehow something something male gaze. Colberg flatly refuses to admit that his beef is that dudes shouldn't photograph women with no clothes on, and so he wanders endlessly around saying ridiculous things like "In a most obvious fashion, Newton’s world is entirely heterosexual."

Not only is Colberg somehow gleaning the sexuality of a nude woman from the photo, which is itself pretty suspect, but Helmut Newton's photos are famously some of the gayest shit ever! It's all flirting with sexual fetishes. We do not in these enlightened times think of gayness as a fetish, but in Newton's time it absolutely was. The Fetish/Gay/Camp blend was 100% a thing, and Helmut Newton was a master of it, if not the master.

Colberg goes on to argue that Newton's photos are "sexist and misogynistic" because it's obvious that they are and if you dared argue that they weren't, well, your argument would also be "sexist and misogynistic" and therefore wrong. Q.E.D. I looked this up in my Logic 101 textbook, and I think we formally refer to this syllogism as Modus Dumbass.

Anyways, this is pretty much a perfect case study of some dude who earnestly believes in visual literacy and earnestly believes that he has more or less mastered this arcane art, and that he is therefore qualified to offer us a "reading" of Newton's work. He sees himself as diligently decoding the dense thicket of symbols encoded in Newton's photographs, to reveal to us the inner meaning.

I don't even much like Newton, but I don't think there's any inner meaning that you need special training to decode. The magazines who commissioned Newton's work would likely be surprised and upset to learn that special training was necessary to make sense of that work. It is as if The New Yorker commissioned 2500 words on dogs, only to receive a manuscript written in Latin.

No, Newton is pretty much all surface. It's all fetishistic and sexy, in a sort of blunt and dated way, and that makes Colberg extremely uncomfortable.

Is it "sexist and misogynistic" to represent women as powerful but also sexual, and also kind of pervy? Maybe? That seems to me like a cultural judgement that's gonna give you different answers in different times and places. Ultimately, I don't particularly care. I am interested in the total effect of the photo, content and method combined.

There's nothing wrong with noticing and inventorying your reactions to a photograph. I do it as a hobby. The difference, as near as I can tell, between simply looking at a photo with your eyes open and visual literacy is that the latter tries, fruitlessly, to separate content from method, to catalogue in some meaningful the reactions to method separately from content.

Invariably, the reaction to content bleeds in, and the whole effort collapses into a re-iteration of the visually literate nimrod's politics. In the end it's never more complicated than them being mad that someone photographed a naked woman.

It's fine to be mad that someone photographed that, or that the subject exists, or whatever, I don't care. What's dumb is to pretend that you're actually mad at the secret neoliberal coded message that you can't articulate but which is definitely in the photo probably as a punctum or something.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

A Photo Testifies

A photograph which looks like a photo of something or someone, as well as anything else which isn't a photo but which looks like such a thing, mainly does one thing: it testifies to that-which-was.

This has been my thesis for a little while now, and it's recognizably lifted directly from Barthes, so if I'm a crank, at least my crankery has a pedigree! What I mean is that a photo, or something that looks like a photo, which also looks like it's of something (not an abstract, obvious collage, or what have you) mainly asserts that something existed, and it looked like that at a moment in time.

There's other shit these things do, of course. They're a mass of tone and color in pleasing, or less pleasing, arrangements, and so on. Paintings do all those things, but paintings do not testify in the same way.

Let us now turn our attention to AI-generated photo-realistic imagery.

It functions in the same way a photo does, if it is sufficiently photo-realistic. It cannot do otherwise. It testifies to that-which-was.

The point is not that it's functioning differently but that its testimony is false.

An unaltered actual photograph cannot be false in the same way. Within the limits of its capacity, its testimony is completely, utterly, true.

The attentive reader might notice here that I am introducing the idea of index in a way that sidesteps the traditional analysis of that concept (light particles physically induced a blah blah blah therefore it's a direct blah blah index index) in order to include digital imagery or whatever. The point is that the testimony is 100% truthful, within the extremely narrow limits of the medium.

To be clear, I am perfectly aware of the many ways a straight photo can misrepresent reality. My point here is that there is a core of visual facts about which no straight photo lies. It looked like that. That thing was in that visual relationship to that other thing. Those two forms overlapped thus. And so on. It is this core of truth that is the testimony of the photo, no more, but also no less.

It is this core of truth that begins to erode the moment we modify the photo (yes, including burning and dodging, contrast adjustments, etc, so yes the core truth of the testimony begins to erode immediately, I am also aware that digital cameras do image processing, thank you.)

An AI generated "photo" testifies in the same way, but its testimony is a complete fabrication.

A perjurer and a priest testify in exactly the same way. The former, however, lies, and we like to imagine that the latter does not.

What is the value of any testimony? Most photos testify as indicated, but nobody cares. Oh, what a nice bowl of tomatos. The light falls just so. Who gives a shit? The aesthetics might be nice, and maybe you even want to decorate your kitchen with a copy of it. But, it doesn't matter if it's real, photoshop, or AI then. So what if the tomatos never existed? Or did? It simply doesn't matter.

Most real photos testify to facts that almost nobody cares about and that don't matter even slightly, to anyone. If we're talking about aesthetics, and if aesthetics is all we care about, then it doesn't matter how the dumb thing got made. Its nature as a piece of testimony doesn't matter a fig, although the fact that it adheres to a photographic aesthetic may.

That said, most real photos testify to something that someone cares about, at least a little. You and I don't care, but to whomever went to the trouble of hauling out her phone, it matters, at least enough to take a photo. It's trivial, but it's real. The photo testifies, and to the photographer, that is in fact what matters. My kid did a cute thing. What a pretty flower. Look at my latte. AI imagery has no place here.

AI imagery only applies to circumstances where we either don't care about the testimony of the image (i.e. Fine Art and Fucking Around, ok maybe Stock) or in places where we explicitly want false testimony. Everyone is focused on the "where we explicitly want false testimony" case because they're worried about things. Let's look at that in a moment.

The point though is that in almost all uses for photography it is the testimony which matters to whoever is taking the photo, albeit to almost nobody else. Nobody looking at an especially pretty flower wants an AI to make an even prettier one, they want to record the one they're looking at. That's literally the point. It's my flower, my child, my town, whatever. If you just want to make a pretty picture of a flower or a child, you could take up painting, and nobody paints.

Almost all uses for AI image-generators that I observe today consist of fucking around and discovering the limits of AI image-generators. The only use case is to post the result online and say "wow, check out what this AI image generator did." This is already starting to get worn out.

As for the case where someone wants false testimony, well. The trouble with false testimony is that as a rule it doesn't work. Nobody accepts any testimony of any kind by itself. Whether we mean to or not, we place testimony in the context of our own world-view, we place it next to other testimony. Even photos, perhaps especially photos: we don't believe testimony unless it supports a larger, more or less coherent, picture of the world.

The only actual use cases for AI imagery that strike me as having any legs at all are basically variations of I wish I could paint, but I can't which honestly seems a bit thin. Not sure there's a big market here.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Guest Post: David Smith reviews Someone for Everything

David is a regular commenter here, and a friend. Normally he's substantially more acerbic, which I suspect means something. The book sounds fascinating.

Someone for Everything by Michael LeBlanc — a review
(and a speculative digression)
by David Smith

Michael Leblanc is a visual artist, and a professor of digital design who I studied under in the early '90s. We stayed in touch, trading news and projects. I recently emailed him to ask if he or his colleagues had any truck with AI (he’s unaware of anything specific), and learned of his latest work, Someone for Everything 100 Sequential Drawings


Why would this book of drawings be of interest to aficionados of photography? It manifestly isn't a photobook, but it is a book that includes many photographs altered in ways familiar to those of us who have experimented with collage and other graphical devices. Working with stock photos, Michael has turned these experiments up to eleven.

I was particularly interested in Michael's take on AI, because he's a 'skeptical enthusiast' who introduced Luddite me to the uses of digital technology in visual art. But what, exactly is meant by "AI"? Well before the ChatGPT and Stable Diffusion (etc.) marketing blitz, AI encompassed many, less hyped applications that don't depend on the extravagant resources of deep fake manufacture.

"Before we go any further, let’s get one thing out of the way."

In his text, Michael takes considerable pains to make clear the 100 drawings were not AI-generated. Based on his emailed comments, I think it possible they were, at least partly, AI-inspired — if true, an interesting conceptual switch! Indeed, the methodology he lays out in detail sounds a lot like the AI process of assembling and modifying fragments of found imagery into a composition — a process historically known as collage.

To recap what is widely understood about the collage medium: one starts with source images clipped from newspapers, magazines, and other printed ephemera (other materials may be introduced). The images may be close-cropped to particular subjects/details, or (less commonly) they are included 'as is,' and glued down in a arrangement. In the digital era, many artists have adopted the collage method with scanned source and/or digicam images. There have been bitter accusations of plagiarism leveled against some AI image-generators, but this is a core precedent for the process itself.

If one takes the narrow position that a drawing is mainly comprised of brush or stylus marks made by human hand, the works in Michael's book look more like collage than drawing at first glance. Closer inspection reveals another possibility: the collage elements are a matrix on which drawing is overlaid. This doesn't take anything away from the book’s expressive power, but I feel it is important for understanding its conceptual provenance.

In his text, Michael describes his intentions for the series, reaching back to his practice of traditional printmaking (intaglio, lithography, etc.): maximal tonal range, 'richness,' and the idea of successive proofs in the development of a print. I'm going to say here I wish I had looked through the drawings first (my bad, I should have just skipped ahead). I've lately become interested in 'prompts' (titles, captions, and texts) — how they affect our readings of visual art. While I think such texts may ideally provide some insights into what a visual work might mean and why, I much prefer to absorb the information visually, and make up my own mind first. I strongly feel the proper role of visual art is to mystify and delight, rather than instruct (Michael is a professor, so…).

The 100 drawings

The sequence begins with Someone for Everything I, a charcoal drawing of a central figure delineated in, and surrounded by blocky tones. The scanned drawing is a scaffold for ensuing digital overlays of collage and drawn elements that shift, morph, are replicated and replaced. It may also be taken as a signal the work is to be interpreted as a series of drawings — something that might otherwise be overlooked! Compared to what soon follows, the composition is relatively simple and stylized, which makes it easier to spot superimposed drawing in later iterations.

The next few drawings in the sequence build up complexity and depth ("richness"). By the fourth (Someone for Everything IV), Michael has got his vocabulary, but the best is yet to come.

Some of the details feel 'off,' in a way that is uncannily similar to how AI image generators conjoin source fragments by attempting to conjure up the missing bits from the sparser reaches of a database. One obtains the strong sense that Michael isn't working to cross an uncanny valley to a seamless realism, but he is deeply interested in the surreal glitches and artifacts AI throws up in near-misses and abject failures. This tracks to his previous works on technology. I have to say again, that flipping this phenomenon into a basis for human invention is an impressive conceptual feat (cf. Francis Picabia’s Réveil Matin).

Michael repaints the collaged photographs, masking and fading elements, and sketching in new details in a kind of loose impressionism, as he builds each drawing.

Paging back and forth through the drawings, I am immediately struck by how they function together as a flip-book animation. This bridges the variable 'completeness' or polish of the individual drawings. While many of the drawings work very well as stand alone visual statements (and I'd like to see a tighter edit with these in), the sequence benefits from the inclusion of intermediary states in comprehending the greater whole.

Michael's collage sources include early Soviet photographs, and I think this is a good place to bring up what I see as possible conscious or unconscious influences on the overall direction of the series: Alexander Rodchenko and other Constructivists worked extensively with dynamic collage compositions during this era, along with Germans in the Dada movement (Hannah Hoch, Raoul Housmann).

Most of Michael's figures here are similarly poised for action, and are often rotated or flipped to an unstable angle for heightened dynamic tension. They are combined and recombined with other figures, whom they seem to be dancing with, fighting, or otherwise spatially interfering. Many of the figures have acquired exaggerated expressions through Michael’s overlaid drawing. Others appear as bland, anonymous ciphers. Drawn elements keep things in the frame, by setting up pauses in the action, and routing our attention around the composition.

The narrowly vertical (6:10) aspect ratio of the drawings perfectly frames a straight-on shot of a standing person with ample margins, and many of the drawings are of this configuration, often with limbs and other visual elements flying out at odd angles. The format, and placement on the page spread support both the 'book of drawings' identity in terms of traditional presentation, and the flip-book browsing experience — variations (and there are many) are locked into this layout scheme.

Michael alludes in his text to the possibility of the drawings printed large scale for an exhibition of the white-cube persuasion. It is easy to imagine LXIV, LXV, LXXV and LXXXI (among others) making for a very dramatic show indeed. He also states that he now considers the project a sketchbook of studies for (e.g.) large paintings.

I feel fortunate to have learned of this very interesting project, which has great depth and many facets of interest to me personally. I will be returning to this book as I try to unravel its meanings, and absorb its lessons.

Sunday, July 30, 2023


I think I've made a little headway on discovering what on earth I've been on about lately.

Perhaps it comes down to the rubric in play. If you're a hull-polisher, your rubric for measuring the quality of a boat and team is how shiny the hull is. This is borderline offensive to someone who's using the rubric "who can get the boat around the course more quickly" which is a more standard racing approach.

What rubs me the wrong way is when people, be they Mike Johnston, or Jörg Colberg, describe a photo as "good" unconditionally. This is pretty normal, most photography types are quite fearless about judging photos good or bad, without bothering to reveal their rubric. They speak exactly as if there was a single objective standard, that they are privy to it, and that they are qualified to judge. At the same time, bizarrely, they will often lean on an idea of subjectivity.

So let's think about rubrics. A rubric, for our purposes here, is any sort of system for measuring the goodness of a photograph. You can imagine it assigning a score between 0 and 10, let's say, where 10 is the best and 0 means terrible.

I am an unrepentant relativist, and believe that there are no immutable, universal, standards for much of anything, and certainly nothing as trivial as a photograph.

Every photograph produces a trivial rubric: "how much does your photo resemble this one" and obviously the photo itself scores 10, other things will score more or less, but probably not 10.

So there's a lot of rubrics out there. As many as there are photos, at least.

Storefront portraitists have a rubric that involves the balance of lighting and whether you got the subject to pose in some approved fashion. Ansel Adams wannabees will measure densities, and may or may not look at anything else. Nobody has been able to figure out what Colberg's rubric is, but it certainly includes "dismal."

In the 1980s and 1990s a variation of 19th century oil painting's notions of composition ruled the roost. I was brought up to photography with a rubric (usually presented as universal) that boils down to a re-working of Victorian composition: balance, unity, etc etc. I wrote a small book on it, largely as an exercise in understanding it, 10 years or so ago. I thought that if I just understood the rubric more thoroughly, I would then be able to make "good photos."

I don't think there is a universal rubric.

A more realistic example of multiplying rubrics than my trivial one above: every project generates a rubric of sorts. A photo is "good" if it works within the context of the body of work. A brilliant landscape that hits every Ansel Adams button is "bad" in the context of a portraiture project. It's tempting to argue that this is different from a more general "good" or "bad", it's tempting to argue that "it's still a good photo, it just doesn't work in the project" but to be blunt, I fail to see the point. It's a distinction without a difference.

The "quality" of any photograph exists in a sort of quantum superposition of states until the moment you see it, in whatever context you see it. Either it works or it does not, at that moment, when the quantum states collapse.

This is, essentially, AD Coleman's position on editing. A photographer does not, in his formulation, exist until the work is edited and prepared for public consumption. The job of the photographer is not complete until then. My formulation may be a little more radical, and is probably not as well-defined, but we do what we can.

My complaints over the last few days can be expressed at this: many photographers evaluate work under rubrics which are opaque, confined to fairly insular communities, and at the same time treated as universal. A rubric that is not more or less accessible to normies may be perfectly fine, I don't want to yuck your yum, but it's not interesting. Nobody cares except you and your friends. There's nothing wrong with that, but to pretend that you're not in a closed club, to pretend that you're making universal art, is to partake of falsehood.

Take the now complete "Bleak House" project, assembled by Brad Feuerhelm: Bleak House -- Void

Nobody wants any of this stuff except the people in that very small community. There's some variety, but even the irrepressible Katrin Koenning appears to have been smashed down to dull incomprehensible gibberish. The people inside, of course, love it. Do they love it because the photos specifically meet some opaque rubric? Well, kinda. Mainly they love it because these people are their friends, and they're all in this mess together, all producing more or less the same piles of incomprehensible gibberish. They're literally taught how to do it, they're judged on how well they do it, and so on. They're polishing the shit out of the hull of a sailboat.

This doesn't make them bad people, it doesn't make the photographs or the books "invalid" or whatever, it just means that nobody much cares about the work. It's possible some of the artists will get jobs as a result, so that's good! I don't know any of these people, but I want them to all be able to eat and have a warm place to sleep! If this is how that happens, then great. I don't like the work, at all, though.

And, again, this is a community of people who are earnestly convinced of the universality of this bewildering rubric which they use to evaluate work. From the outside, they look like a bunch of schizophrenics, living inside an absolutely impenetrable bubble of their own imagination.

Do I have some ultimate summing up, some sort of answer, here?

Of course not. The whole point is that there are rubrics, and there are rubrics, and it's all relative.

I do think that it behooves us to think pretty hard about what we are trying to accomplish. How should we evaluate a photograph. There is no such thing as quality in a universal sense here (pace Pirsig) there are only properties of how photographs behave, and how we might use these objects with these properties to accomplish whatever it we seek to accomplish.

Consider, again, the "Bleak House" project. I have no idea who Brad wanted to impress here, but it probably includes more or less his peers. This includes a bunch of curators and other gatekeepers who will examine the CVs of the participants, note the MFAs and so on, and glance at the photos to verify that they Meet Standard. Everyone gets another line to add to their CV, thereby increasing their chance of getting a grant or a show or whatever. To this extent I dare say "Bleak House" is a success. It looks like Brad was able to leverage his C-list status to lend status to a bunch of artists, which in turn burnished his apple a bit. Victory all around.

If the aim went beyond that, though, it's an abject failure. No normie is going to look at these books and get much out of them. Sure, there's an indie zine vibe in there, a kind of punk-rock aesthetic, but then you get to the photos. It's all tryhard Walker Evans wannabee grey architecture, mixed up with a few weaksauce Ren Hang copies (no porn, no guts) and the occasional damp design exercise. It's not going to speak to anyone, because it's all the vague gibberish that can be re-tasked at a moment's notice by re-writing the artist's statement.

I'm not sure Feuerhelm had a clear notion of what the point was. Certainly I've never seen anyone admit that their work isn't supposed to impress normies, that it is all grant-bait. But it is, in the end and in this community, all grant-bait. The vagueness is a feature. Your portfolio can be about whatever you need it to be about today.

A similar sort of deconstruction, though, can be applied to lots of other photography. Mike Johnston's photos are at least attractive, and he does actually sell them on the strength of his strong graphical skills. Nevertheless, I'm not sure that he has much notion of a specific rubric to which he's adhering. His writing suggests that he imagines himself to be adhering to a universal rubric of some sort, and that his photos are in some objective sense "good." The fact that they are more broadly appealing than the average MFA's work does not make his rubric universal.

Ditto the storefront portrait guys. Ditto the street photography guys. Ditto the guys who can't stop taking pictures of peaches and forks in beautiful rectangular gridded arrangements.

It's not all subjective, not by a long shot. We, humans, fall into communities, into affinity groups, and tend to like and dislike things en masse.

It is, however, all relative.

Saturday, July 29, 2023

Photos about Themselves II

I got the sense from the commenters on the previous remarks that my notes maybe read as an indictment of all photographers, or almost all photographers, and I don't mean that at all. Just... a lot of them.

The thing that got me started on this train of thought is a photograph and some remarks by Mike Johnston over on his blog, ToP: Photographs are Gifts.

Allow me to be perfectly clear: I like and respect Mike, I like this photo pretty well, and I think by certain standards it is a "good photograph."

At the same time, though, this illustrates the point I am trying to make. Mike and I are roughly contemporaneous, he is slightly older. We both came up to photography feeling that, to a large extent, it's a problem of graphic design. Yes, to be sure, the graphic design is intended to be the tool by which something else occurs, something larger, something about communication. At the same time, we get a little too focused on the graphic design. You can read Mike ruminating a little about "final" versus, I guess, not final. You can tell he's thinking about contrast and shadow detail. We both spent far too much time learning about Ansel Adams and the rhythm of dark and light, the full range of tone, etc etc etc. All, of course, in aid of something or other larger and more important which we have for the moment mislaid.

It is, I feel, time for an extended and elaborate analogy built around, of course, racing sailboats.

Suppose a fellow buys a boat to go racing. Quickly he learns that polishing the hull makes it go faster, so he really gets into polishing his hull. In fact, after a while, he stops sailing entirely. A community of people arise who buy boats specifically and solely to polish the hull. They develop rules and standards, they have contests, they judge one another's boat hull polish levels.

Now, there's a lot of stuff you can do with a sailboat. You can race it. You can go camping in it. You can travel long distances. You can seduce lovers. You can get exercise. On and on. And also, you can polish it.

Someone fond of one of the other activities might reasonably get a little testy about the hull-polishers. They might angrily point out some of the other things, things the damned machine is actually built to do. On the one hand, this is unfair: who is this asshole to yuck the polishers' yum? There's no law against polishing the hull, nobody's getting hurt. On the other hand... boy that does seem like a waste of a boat and of your time.

A great deal of photography is done by people whose main goal to to make photographs that their peers will approve of. That is, they seek to make photographs that comply with the more-or-less arbitrary standards a group of photographers has invented for themselves, in the same way the hull polishers seek the perfect sheen.

On the one hand, who am I to yell at Mike to stop obsessing over the graphic design (so, obviously, I didn't and I won't, nobody else should either, and anyways I agree that the graphic design is good, and I was literally taught that this is what matters, so... I have some feels here, and they're complicated.)

On the other hand, Mike's photograph (like all his photographs) does little more than testify that Mike is very good at noticing things that make photographs of the sort Mike takes.

There are many things you can do with a camera, including make graphic design exercises. You can also make dreary grey photographs of nothing, if you're in the right sort of MFA program. You can make warm cozy photos that somehow evoke the paintings of Hopper without any of the angst. You can make photos with that kind of weird sheen of plastic-y perfection that get you to the front page of whatever photo sharing site you favor. You can take portraits with a million lights and balance them just so.

Who am I to yuck your yum, if that's what you want to do?

But in all those cases, you are making photographs intended to be liked by other photographers, and you're doing that by adhering to essentially arbitrary criteria your community has invented for itself.

The essential action of the photograph, its ability to testify to that-which-was, gets lost here somewhere. The essential action of the artist, which surely involves complying with the demands of an inner voice in opposition to the voice of the community, gets lost here somewhere.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Photos About Themselves

Most photos, almost all photos, are naive witnesses to something or to someone. The snapshot from the party or the beach, the selfie, whatever. These are maybe not well-made, these are maybe meaningful only to a few people. That's ok. All they do is attest to that-which-was, and that's all they are meant to do.

At the other end, there are well-made photos that are about something else. Maybe they're very beautiful, or they witness something more universal, more accessible.

In the middle, where all the photographers live, there is a desperate hell-scape of photos that are about themselves.

Consider the dismal grey mess from the MFA student, the photo that's allegedly a biting critique of late-stage capitalism but is in the end a cluster of weeds in front of a trash bin. This thing isn't about capitalism or weeds or trash, it testifies only to the student's opinion of themself as an insightful commentator of late-stage capitalism, whatever that even is. With a quick adjustment of the text, it's a profound commentary on patriarchy, or a plea for de-growth, or a satirical commentary on climate change. It witnesses nothing except that the photographer is in an MFA program.

By the same token, the minimalist photo of the peach on a cutting board, illuminated by the well-placed warm ray of sunshine witnesses nothing more than the insightful eye of the photographer. It may be in some way beautiful, but god damn it we've seen this picture so many times, and it's always the same, and after a while you realize that most of what you like about it is the way the photographer cranked the saturation and warmth sliders up.

The witty juxtaposition street photo. Look, the pedestrian walks left under the big arrow pointing right! Ha ha it looks like the steam is coming from the person's head! The giant hand in the poster appears to be grabbing the bus! Ha ha! Nobody cares. Again, the photo does nothing more than testify that you're in the hands a sharp and curious photographic eye, an insightful and witty commenter on the human condition.

Except that none of these actually comment on whatever. They all comment on the photographer, and ultimately, on themselves. They are hermetically sealed into a self-referential container. These photographs mainly observe that they themselves are examples of a well-worn trope, the well-observed something-or-other.

As a rule, photographs like these are made to appeal to other photographers, and photographers, as a rule, are the only people who like them.

There are endless awful little silos of photographers. There's the "5 light studio portrait" guys, the Miksang guys, the nude figure studies guys, the dismal grey bullshit MFA guys, the street photography guys, and so on. The common thread is that people in the silo are the only people in the world who give the smallest shit about the photos made by the people in the silo. Even they don't care that much. They print their own photos, and drone on about how important it is to print your work, but they don't even want prints of one another's photos, and don't much care about them. They buy one another's books, but it's purely a quid pro quo. The average self-styled Serious Photographer's interest in printed photos, while intense, begins and ends with their own photos.

You can tell the narrowness of interest by the commentary. Everything is "wow! So good. Just.. so good. wow. wow." We might reasonably expect many photographers to be kind of inarticulate, but surely not every single one?

Normies don't care about any of this shit even slightly. None of these photos would incite even a flicker of interest from anyone outside the relevant silo. Ok, maybe the first time you see that goddamned peach photo, you'll glance at it. But normies instinctively feel the emptiness of these things, they're much more interested in even the naive snaps.

To be fair, it's not like normies pace slowly through the gallery, minutely examining everything. Still, for even the most jaded normie there's that one painting, that one photo; they'll wander over and puzzle over it for a minute or two.

This is, essentially, why photo communities are bad. They seem, inevitably, to turn into weird echo chambers that endlessly refine an increasingly uninteresting set of tropes. Everything from twitter to forums to MFA programs to local photo clubs of middle-aged ladies does the same thing: they all converge on some remarkably limited and uninteresting set of visual ideas, and grind them into a sort of thin gruel that nobody likes. I don't know if painters do the same thing. Maybe it's just photographers that are special in some way.

Certainly photographers are, as a group, remarkably lazy. Many a photographer aspires to creativity without labor. The AI Art community seems to have a lot of photographers in it, presumably because it's even easier than taking photos. Photographers, more than any other single group, seem to be in love with the insane idea that "art is subjective" especially as a justification for pretty much any kind of dumb shit.

I won't describe it as universal, but it is at any rate common to discover that the photographers I actually like are loners, or at best hang (hung) out in a fairly small, fairly thoughtful, community of like-minded people. Often they hang around with literary types, but not photographers. What a poet has to say about a photo might be a lot more interesting than what another photographer has to say about it. And, perhaps, vice versa.

In any case, do try not to take photographs mainly for the purpose of illustrating your own incisive wit or whatever. Or, you know, do, if you like. It costs me nothing, after all.

Thursday, July 6, 2023

On Escaping Oneself

There is in this world a wide spectrum of human circumstance, from very comfortable indeed to extremely uncomfortable. At the same time, there is a spectrum of desire-to-change ones circumstance. If one is very uncomfortable indeed, it makes sense to want to change your lot in life, perhaps even to change in some meaningful way who you are.

You might think, in fact, that the desire to change oneself might correlate more or less with the comfort of ones life, and that might even be true. True, that is, in general terms. Comfortable people, presumably, prefer to change little or nothing.

When you get down to specific people, though, you will find that many many many people who are in fairly comfortable situations nevertheless seek, sometimes desperately, to change their lives, to change themselves, to somehow escape their comfortable and yet somehow unsatisfying situation.

This manifests in a lot of ways. A lot of ways. People look to religion, they take up hobbies, and sometimes they just whine a lot on social media.

One variant is the would-be artist.

Now, I am very much in favor of art-making. Big fan. What's less appealing is the assumption, or the investment in the idea, of art-making leading to some sort of "success."

We have photographers who are struggling to become Professional Photographers, or Fine Art Photographers, and I suppose we have the same in all the other arts. Mostly, of course, I see photographers who seem to, with varying degrees of desperation, want photography to somehow save them from themselves. Maybe they want to make money, or get featured in FOAM or get a show somewhere, or maybe they just want their photography to somehow turn them into interesting people, or get them laid more, or something.

To an extent, I don't necessarily disapprove. We do grow and change, sometimes through the mechanic of "trying new things." Taking up a new hobby isn't a bad way to be human, to live your life, to expand oneself in good ways.

On the other hand, to ask too much of such a thing, to hope that it will in some meaningful way provide an escape from oneself, that can easily turn to pathology.

Perhaps there isn't, in the end, much difference between the child of poverty who bets it all on basketball, and the dweeb who buys an expensive camera. Both hope to alter their lives, maybe profoundly. Both are long shots; both enable much if the plan happens to work out. Still, one is hoping to escape from being cold and hungry, the other dreams of not being a boring dweeb. Perhaps there is a difference after all.

As someone who is essentially pretty comfortable, who is not seeking to escape cold and hunger, and at the same time as someone who's aware of what a long shot art is, I am trying to do something else artistically.

I don't want to escape myself, or my circumstances. I'm fascinating and cool, my life is really very comfortable indeed. Why on earth would I seek to escape this excellent set of circumstances?

There is a scene in a Terry Pratchett novel, Witches Abroad, in which Granny Weatherwax is trapped by her evil sister in a hall of mirrors, endlessly reflecting images of Granny back at herself. Her sister cackles from afar, something about how she must now figure out which one is real, and she never will, or whatever. Something like that. Granny instantly identifies herself as the real one and smashes the mirrors, completely unfazed.

This, while funny and somewhat silly, is a useful little parable. You are right here. There's no mystery. Perhaps you make art, and that is a wonderful and fine thing. However, there is no mythical you, no potential-you that is great artist or a professional photographer (or, for that matter, a movie star or a captain of industry.) There's just you, right here. Someday, maybe even today, you are or will be any one of those things. When that happens, you will still be, you are, right here not mythical at all but very real, very much present in all your meat-based imperfect glory.

I spend too much time online, and I see a lot of people looking for answers. They want to know how to be someone else. Ironically, many of them seem to tinker with Buddhist ideas at some time or another, which I find especially odd seeing as Buddhism seems to be as much about being yourself as you are right now, as it is about anything else. Buddhism as a way to transform yourself to someone new seems to be rather missing the point.

I don't want to make art to transform either myself or my life, but rather to be myself, and to live my life, in as fully human a way as I can manage.

Rumor has it that Bill Watterson (author of Calvin & Hobbes) paints a painting every day, and burns it that night. Kurt Vonnegut famously advised students to write a poem, as good as poem as they can, and then to tear it up. The point here is that art can simply be made, you don't have to show it to anyone. You don't have to try to "succeed" somehow. You can simply do it, and if you like, you can do it as well as you can. Or not. You can take the same photograph over and over, and if you like that photograph and you like taking it, well then why not? Larry Gagosian will not be telephoning you either way, so in the end what does it matter?

At the same time, I object to the "I neeeeeed to take photographs" (or the related "I neeeeeeed to write" or whatever) which is almost invariably a mere performance by someone who wants you to consider them interesting and fuckable. They, as a rule, have no such need, and probably don't even much like whatever art they like to imagine themselves experts at.

This is the fundamental distinction: does photography (or whatever) actually do something for you, or do you simply fancy yourself in the hat?

Because photography itself is specifically so extremely easy, it's kind of a standard landing place for those who want to appear interesting, those who hope to escape their boring selves and either get laid, get rich, or both. Learning to play the piano is hard, and learning to play it well is much harder, and anyways you can't exactly wander around with a piano trying to impress girls. The camera is more or less the one Art Accessory you can roam around with without looking like a weirdo.

Anyways, I don't think most of my readers are trying to escape themselves. I do see hints, from time to time, of someone I suspect of reading these little notes being unsatisfied with their photographs, and I urge you: don't be.

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Notes on Drawing

As previously remarked, I have been making an effort to pursue drawing more seriously. This has been going on about 7 months now, I've worked through Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and I've been trying to draw every day. There has been some success.

The central problem of drawing is that of seeing what is actually there.

The goal of a drawing "from life" is to reduce the visual reality to a sheet of paper, with marks on it, which evoke more or less the same response as the visual reality. You want to perceive in the page more or less what you perceive in life. The constant persnickety difficulty is that you tend to mark on the page not what is there, but what you perceive.

A child draws a human head as an oval with two ovals for eyes near the top. The eyes on the human head are in reality vertically centered, but this is not the percept of the head, it is the reality.

If you draw what you perceive than upon re-perceiving that, a double layer of perception (with the accompanying intense interpretation the brain does) the second order perception is all wrong.

In short, if you want your drawing to look like Bob, you have to draw what Bob actually looks like, not "how you see Bob."

This is all standard stuff. Arnheim wrote about it at length, and any modern book on drawing or painting will probably go over it.

The central act of drawing is thus to see what is actually there; to somehow step around the perception, to see what is actually there. Teaching drawing, to a large degree, consists of teaching gimmicks to trick yourself into skipping the perception step, the step that interprets and classifies and reduces visual data to things and people and stuff we can think about. To draw a recognizable portrait of a person is to observe and replicate an incredible mess of extremely exact proportions and shapes. I find it quite difficult.

Interestingly, to draw non-people, you can work largely from vibes. You don't have to get the proportions very close, but if you get the various more emotionally accessible bits and pieces right, the drawing will feel about right. We see faces quite differently than we see trees. I think the same applies to painting. It's a lot easier for someone like me to paint a sunset that feels like the sunset I'm looking at than it is for me to draw a picture of my wife's face that looks like my wife.

Photographers know this all too well.

It's easy to make a photo of someone that looks like them. The camera preserves in agonizing detail all those little proportions and relationships that make a face recognizable. It's hard to take a photograph of a sunset, because the impact of the sunset does not lie in the precise geometrical, optical, relationships of the parts. A sunset's impact is as much context as anything.

To bring these two ideas together: it's quite difficult to make an emotionally "truthful" portrait. It will look like the subject, you can recognize them. But it might not feel like them, it might not portray their kindness, or their mood, or the way you personally feel about them.

The point I want to make here, though, is this: photography makes it possible to create a visual reduction of something onto a flat piece of paper without ever examining what is actually there.

I think was, as of 1830ish, almost unprecedented. If you wanted to reproduce something, you had to look at it. I guess you could dip an object in pigment and press it on a surface, prior to photography, but it's hard to think of anything else.

Even the use of a camera obscura required you to look at what was actually there. The device was simply another way to sidestep the machinery of perception.

Indeed, perceptive photographers tend to recognize their photographic failures specifically as failures to see what was actually there. We react to the vibes of a tree, or a sunset, and snap it. We are disappointed with the result, because we didn't want to photography the visual reality, but rather how we felt.

I don't want to propose that you can't Truly Make Art without the deep insights offered by drawing, a position that is of course tempting to me as a recent convert. Still, there's something here.

Does one approach art-making with the camera as a sort of variation of drawing, and demand that the photographer see what it truly there before taking the picture?

Or, is there something else? Is this a new way of art-making, in which perception proceeds directly to new perception, without examining the underlying reality too closely? Perhaps you can make the argument that this is what some schools of modern painting were actually about in the first place?

I happen to suspect that the impressionists and cubists and whatnot in reality began with a traditional drawing-artist's wrestle with what was actually there. They simply declined to reduce it to the page in the traditional way, choosing instead to render a new thing, perceived in a different and yet related way. I could be wrong!

It is worth noting, I think, that "AI Art" also skips the underlying reality comma examination of. To paint even an imaginary scene, you must wrestle with the imagined visual reality. How is he holding his head? How do her eyes tilt? Where is the light hitting the rock, and what is in shadow? AI Art allows you to skip all that nonsense, and move right ahead to how you feel about it. As with photography, you pick out the good ones, the ones that actually vibe the way you imagined. As with photography, you don't notice 95% of what's even in the frame.

I honestly don't know what to make of this all. I do know that I look at things much more closely now than I used to. I have an unhealthy relationship with the ratio of "nose-to-mouth distance" to "mouth-to-chin distance" as well as the overall shape of people's heads.

Friday, June 16, 2023

Crit: The Garden by Tony Fouhse

I like Tony and I like Tony's work, so as usual, assume a certain bias in what follows although, as usual, I will attempt to be fair minded and neutral.

Tony gifted me a copy of his latest, and as usual, I like it. It was one of several things that arrived in my field of view during my Crisis of Faith, and it is a nearly perfect exemplar of what I was talking about. It's open, it's built using the old methods (although the photos are modern); it insists on very little but permits a great deal.

So, what is it?

Well, it's a softcover book, about 8" by 10", more or less a magazine format but on heavy paper that's neither matte nor glossy. Colour (it's Canadian, so you have to put the 'u' in.) 66 pages, more or less (I may have miscounted and the exact count doesn't matter.)

The book opens with the phrase Once upon a time and closes with happily ever after. There is no other text, the rest of the book is photos and blank pages, one photo per page. The photos are all nighttime photos, although I suspect that a few of them may have been shot during the day and processed to look like night.

The text frames the book, literally, as a fairy tale. Those phrases mean very precisely that, without a shred of ambiguity. That leaves a great deal of space in between, though. We can reasonably expect some magic, but even that is optional. I decided to go with magic.

The book is filled with magic, but since it's open you have to supply it yourself. It allows you to, but doesn't demand it. The book isn't in the business of supplying meaning, or magic, it's a set of pictures you can look at, and some hints.

The photos. The photos contain a lot of brutalist architecture, which I like to look at but not to be in, some demolition sites, some things that might be construction, some general urban material. Trees, a lot of trees. The sequencing is, as noted, very old school:

Graphical repeats are a constant drumbeat, as are repeated elements, repeated colors, and so on. The whole thing feels very constructed for this reason, it has none of the flavor of laziness that so many modern books have. This is not to suggest that modern books are made lazily, they are not. The point is that modern photobook authors kill themselves over the sequencing, and the result appears essentially random and thrown together. They're so obsessed, I think, with defying obvious structure that the result descends into gibberish.

The key with abstract painting is knowing when to stop tearing down. A bad abstract artist produces noise. A good one stops short of the moment when the painting disintegrates into noise.

Back to Tony's book. It's old school, the graphical structure is clear, unambiguous. Graphical structure, though, does not impute meaning, only structure. The meaning we must find ourselves.

The book opens with four photos. A tree and parking lot, and then three views of concrete tunnel openings. The tunnels are single-lane roads, or possibly large pedestrian underpasses. They are similar enough that you wonder if they are the same tunnel-opening, but they are not. They look like they're in a park, perhaps. Possibly the parking lot in the first photo is attached to the park, in which the tunnel(s) reside?

The result here, to my eye, is a kind of unity. These are not all the same thing, they are different, and yet they look pretty much the same. Unlike a Becher typology, the tunnels are shot from different angles, the point is not to compare them, but to unify them. Thus, I find the magic. It's all the same tunnel, manifesting itself differently. It is one tunnel, but also many. There is a unity that arises from the many, somehow.

This becomes, for me, the template by which I made sense of the book.

The book strikes me as a series of episodes, each depicting a place which is made up of many places. Whether all the photos are different angles on the same thing or not, I do not know, and I do not care. The point is that, by magic, the photos in a group in a meaningful way depict the same place. Indeed, I rather hope that in most cases the singular place has been formed from photos shot in various locations, unified by graphical character and by magic.

Each of the places is populated by one or two people. The people are not lounging, they are engaged in something or other, but what they are about is not clear. The denizens of these places are doing something that you can't quite make out. Again, we're permitted but not required to see magic here. Maybe they're just curious tourists, or maybe they're performing a ritual, who knows?

In some cases I'm not even certain that the people are the same people. There's a blonde, and there she is again (but is it really the same blonde, or is she a different blonde who is, somehow, the same blonde?) It doesn't matter, though. That's kind of the point.

We don't really have a story here, that is (I think clearly) not the intention. What we have is a series of magic-imbued places in which magic-imbued characters are doing things that we do not understand.

It's always nighttime, the trees are always richly green and numerous, the built environment is entirely made from concrete but coexists seamlessly with the trees. There is a fairly clearly delineated world in which these places, there characters, exist, and it is not the real world (I have been to Ottawa, and it doesn't really look like this; for starters, it's daylight much of the time.)

The book ends with a kiss (?) and a departing blonde. That's all you get for narrative.

Figure it out yourself the book says.

It all puts me in mind of some Russian/Soviet film which was famously assembled from cast-off footage from other films, a film in which the same role is "played" by multiple actors, because footage was cast off from many different movies and re-assembled. I regret that I cannot locate the name of the dumb film, though, and it appears to be search-engine-proof to my annoyance.

Monday, June 12, 2023

The White Cube

The Mainstream White Cube art community is a curious beast, at least on the photography side.

It seems mandatory for members of the community to deny membership (Fight Club?) and indeed to denigrate the community and its mores. Lewis Bush has made a kind of a career out of bitching about White Cube Art, while simultaneously feasting on its meagre provender as often as possible.

Jörg Colberg lunges relentlessly back and forth between complaining about it and wallowing in it. Most of his output is the vague waffle that is the standard "critical writing" that emerges, but occasionally he really goes off on a rant and decries the whole thing causing me to think "why are we not more sympatico?" (Jörg hates my guts, which I have absolutely earned, but we do think along the same lines from time to time.)

The C4 Journal people, both of whom I know slightly, seem to be thoroughly grounded normal-ass people, who nevertheless engage is a lot of the vague waffle and identity-driven "criticism" that's expected. Most recently, as commenter David S. pointed out, they published a review of Lewis Bush's book; a review written by Lewis Bush for some reason. The reviewer seemed to think the book was pretty good. Interestingly, the review specifically addresses a few questions I had about the book, so that's nice! I see you, Lewis, and I appreciate the response! Drop me an email some time.

The whole thing leads me to suspect that everyone inside the White Cube hates it, yearns to rebel against it, and yet cannot because however slender the gruel, this is where the trough is. It appears to be a prison of their own making!

There's a vague notion that it's Deutsche Bank and so on that are driving the thing, the Large Capitalist donors that Force Us to be such worthless idiots!!!! Except that Deutsche Bank doesn't, itself, give a damn what you do. They fund this stuff on the advice of... you guys. The funding decisions are ultimately made by more or less the same self-hating White Cube denizens.

If I were making a prison for myself and my friends, it would be a lot cooler, and a hell of a lot more fun. This one seems really dismal.

My Cube would be pink, there would be loud music, and we'd make fun of one another relentlessly. Also, we'd make cool-ass art that doesn't suck.

Thursday, June 8, 2023

Political Photo Books

Most of the Serious Artist photobooks are political. Probably most Serious Art aims to be political. Political, that is, broadly construed: who has power, how do they use it; who lacks power, and why they ought to have it.

A political statement, in general, will in the first place remark on how things are now, the present state of affairs, but as a rule will add on to that any number of things. It may propose that a different state of affairs is desirable (or, sometimes, not desirable.) It may propose that someone or other should not have power (usually, whoever has power now should not have it, but sometimes it is the aspirant who shouldn't.) The proposal that someone ought not to have power involves usually some combination of coherent argument, and straightforward character attacks.

Roughly, we can consider political statements to rely on, at least, these three things: testimony as to the past and present, speculation about the future, and caricature.

Thus it is that we come across a fundamental problem with the political photobook.

A photograph testifies to that-which-was. That is its fundamental operation. It shows us something from, necessarily, the past, and offers itself as proof that whatever it was, was so. You can do other things with photographs, to be sure, but at that point you are arguing with the fundamental mode of the form.

In particular, photographs don't want to speculate, and they don't want to caricature.

We see this most plainly in photographs of divisive political figures. The very same photo is seen as proof of so-and-so's venal nature, or as proof of their essentially good character, depending on the party affiliation of the viewer. A proper caricature leaves no such room for interpretation. Attempts to "read" photos as caricature invariably fail, because they do nothing more than reveal the political alignment of the reader.

This leaves us with only one facet of the political. The photograph testifies, like nothing else testifies, to that-which-was, and this is certainly a vital component of a strong political statement. The photograph leaves it right there, however. No speculation, no caricature.

Sometimes this is enough, perhaps.

Robert Frank's The Americans manages something political, despite being literally nothing more than mute testimony. It offers no speculation, no prognostication, no proposals. It caricatures nothing. It doesn't assign blame. It simply testifies, and somehow that succeeds, after a fashion.

Whatever happens to the photo book form, and I do believe in the form, it must accept that the photograph begins and ends with the testimony of that-which-was.

You cannot take a picture of a forest and claim that it supports the thesis that Nazis are bad. Well, you can, but it's stupid and makes no sense to do that. Nazis were and are bad! To be sure! But a photograph of a forest is not evidence in support of that, any more than my shoes are, or a fried egg is. If you've gotten some grants and are inside the White Cube, you can claim anything and get away with it, including (probably) that a fried egg is an anti-fascist slogan. This, however, doesn't mean you're right, it just means you're in the Cube.

If we are to be serious, rather than Serious, it behooves us to see what the medium actually does and to use that, or defy that, according the the needs of whatever we're trying to accomplish. Defy away, if you like, but know what it is you are doing. If you want to try to caricature with photography, give it a shot, but know that you're arguing with the medium.

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

A Crisis of Faith

First, I am not dead. Sorry.

I've been out of ideas for a long time, and am having a hard time focusing on photography. Partly, I'm doing other things, and partly I'm having a little crisis of faith around photography. I think many of my readers will approve, though! Let me explain.

For some years now I've been working on how best to impose meaning on a sequence of photographs. In what ways might we arrange pictures and other materials to "say something" as specifically as possible, or in the best possible way, or whatever. A few recent books have nudged me pretty hard to more or less give up the struggle, and think about things differently.

On the one hand we have Bush's book on Wernher von Braun, and a bunch of other books from the same flock of people. These guys are all about imposing meaning on a sequence of pictures, and as a rule imagine they have succeeded. Bush's book is essentially an uninteresting essay which repeats the conventional wisdom, and a bunch of pictures that add nothing whatsoever; but, it is apparently revelatory of the Secret History of the US Space Program. Somehow. We might also look at Jörg Colberg's book which appears to be a bunch of grey pictures of stuff, but is (apparently) about the rise of fascism in Europe?

These are in the end fairly silly books. They represent a kind of apotheosis of the will to impose meaning on sequences of pictures, on the will to make something substantive and meaningful around "the photobook."

Ultimately, the trouble is that we already have an excellent technology for making explicit remarks with definite meaning. That technology is language, and we have a bunch of add-on tech which lets us record language on paper. You can just write "fascism sucks" on an index card, and you get more meaning than Colberg can cram into a book of photos.

The conceit, as I have remarked elsewhere, seems to be that the photos add a different way of knowing. You can, somehow, grasp that Monsanto/Fascism/Nazis are bad in a different way, a way that somehow adds something (depth? emotional weight? I have no idea) if only the author includes a bunch of photos and makes some weird rendering choices.

To be blunt, I don't think it's true. The photos have a string tendency to distract and muddle the message, and it turns out that the message is usually pretty lightweight in the end anyway because Serious Artists don't have much to say about Issues of Global Importance. They're been busy screwing around with cyanotypes or something.

At the same time, several of my readers have sent me things over the last few months which are not this at all. These things lean in to the traditional photo book methods: the graphical coincidences, the repeated colors, repeated textures, repeated objects. They are much more open documents, you are at liberty to make what you like of them, within some bounds. I like these objects a lot better, and they make a lot more sense to me.

By now I've made any number of photo books, and they're all over the place. Some of them are definite attempts to impose fairly strict meaning, often because there's a bunch of text. Photos illustrating text is a thing, I guess, and that's fine? There's probably a spectrum of some sort from the "text" through "text with illustrations" landing somewhere at "here's a bunch of photos in a row."

My thinking at the moment is confused, it's a tangle, but I think that there needs to be some sort of opening up, a willingness to abandon strict meaning as you move away from text and toward pictures. There's probably something to be said about poetry in here as well. A technical report means something pretty strict, but a bunch of free verse is a lot more open? Either trying to make the poem strict, or the technical report open is going to be a mistake. Form does not dictate function, but it sure as hell influences it.


I am coming around to the conclusion that they kind of got the form about right in the 1950s and 60s, and the more modern efforts are essentially doomed and always were. Certainly nobody likes the modern photo book except people who make modern photo books.

There is certainly a temptation, one might even say an imperative, to alter a form, to apply a form in new ways. Oil painting was altered by the impressionists, and then the cubists, and then the next batch of guys, and so on. I don't think the modern photobook represents an advance, or even a functional alteration, on the form more or less perfected in the 1960s.

It's possible there is something that could be done, a new movement that takes the old thing and makes something genuinely new from it, but this ain't it.

Monday, May 8, 2023

Confidential To Recent Commenter!

Hey, I didn't publish your comment for complicated reasons, but I'd like to hear from you and try to work something out. I sympathize. Shoot me an email at if you'd like to. Or not, it's your choice!

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Crit Followup: Depravity's Rainbow

As sometimes happens, I am unable to let well enough alone.

I spent some time digging around and thinking about Bush's book, Depravity's Rainbow because I found its contents to relentlessly un-surprising, and yet his own and others descriptions are clearly intended to lead us to believe that the book is in fact surprising. I was, as noted in my initial review, uncertain as to whether my lack of surprise was due to my own situation.

In short, no. In terms of factual information, in terms of conclusions, in terms of the archival photographs offered up, Bush's effort hews entirely to the well-established mainstream contemporary story. His textual description of relevant history could be assembled in an afternoon from Wikipedia, with one exception I was able to identify. That exception is found in Neufeld's biography of von Braun, Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War which is the source everyone including wikipedia and Bush cites.

The photos are mostly (or entirely) available on the web, and many of them are more or less canonical. The V2 rocketry photos, and many of the early von Braun photos, can mostly be found on the various V2 Rocket fan sites that appear on the first page of google search results. I cannot prove that Bush simply downloaded his photos from a couple of V2 fan sites, but there are a lot of V2 photos, and the subset that appears on the fan sites overlaps a lot with Bush's book. This is the general theme, Bush's book seems to have winnowed large collections of material down to exactly the subset that appears in the first page of google search results.

It is, of course, much easier to reconstruct this sort of thing than to assemble it in the first place, but I am pretty sure I could pull together if not exactly Bush's corpus of materials, at least an equivalent one that overlapped enormously, in a few days.

It is, of course, possible and even likely that Bush labored away and assembled an enormous mass of fascinating detail, with many never-before seen photos, many obscure facts, and so on. However, he seems to have thrown away everything except what is essentially the mainstream contemporary narrative. The facts, the photos, the conclusions, these are all precisely what you'd find in an even cursory research effort.

So what is the point here?

If he's done anything of value, it has to be in the way he's assembled these components. He's not saying anything new, and he's not bringing any new or even slightly obscure material to the table; there's literally nowhere else this book can contribute except to bring a novel approach to how the standard materials lead to the standard conclusion.

Let's look at his archival photos. To my chagrin, I did not notice what is in fact obvious.

He's crushed the photos into a common format. He's eliminated shadow detail entirely, rendering all the photos as super high contrast "low quality" black and white, regardless of source. He's printed them as black and white (I think physically — if he did it digitally it's very well done) on highly textured yellow paper, with a black border. This brings them all into a common format.

Here, for instance, is an original:

And here is Bush's version (note: none of my reproductions from the books are particularly good, but they should give the flavor and certain facts):

You can see the loss of detail, the textured paper, and so on. But also notice the 3-hole punch hole. The original is a copy of a page from a three-ring bound book. Bush has almost cropped out the holes, but not quite, part of one remains. Then he re-framed the picture into a larger blank space before putting the black border on and printing it out badly.

Here's von Braun being carried through the streets of Huntsville after Apollo 11's astronauts, the first to land on the moon, returned.

Bush's version, smashed as usual, but also cropped and, oddly enough, rotated slightly. There's no black border this time, as this photo appears in the front matter not in the body of the book:

And one more, von Braun shakes hands with JFK:

Bush, again:

So.. what's going on? Well, Bush is tinkering with archival photos. Nothing major, and god knows I am no stickler for "preserve shadow detail at all costs" or whatever, but some of the modifications don't seem to be worth it. Bush is definitely not respecting these things as documents (but then, he wouldn't, he's philosophically opposed to treating them as such, I think.)

If you'll recall, his gimmick here is to fold von Braun's life back on itself, in a "Memento" structure, and so Bush wants photos to be comparable. I am certain this is how he justifies the process of bringing them all to a common format. The common format has to be low-fi because some of the photos are pretty low-fi. He probably argues for the yellow tone on the basis that it complements the blue tone of his cyanotypes.

But at the same time, the effect (which he cannot be ignorant of) is to imbue the archival photos with a false oldness. They look like they were extracted from dusty files by a diligent researcher, rather than simply downloaded from the internet and smashed with a saved Photoshop action. He has to be aware that this effect is present; the alternative is that he is incomprehensibly stupid, and he simply isn't.

I have to say that his willingness to tinker with the archival photos and at the same time to describe his book as:

... tell[ing] a little known history of space exploration that starts in Nazi Germany with the Second World and the Holocaust, and examines how these problematic origins continue to shape the field today.

which makes it sound, well, like a history. Like the pictures are real, and not tinkered with. Which, in a sense, they are? It's not like he's photoshopping little green men in there, but at the same time no mainstream news outlet would touch these photos. The whole business makes me uncomfortable, but I am also loathe to say it's wrong.

But what does it do here? How is this a novel way of using the standard materials to tell the standard story?

Other than some gimmicky color theory and a not-very-illuminating "Memento" trope deployment, there's just not a lot here. I don't find this to be a particularly revealing new way to see the story, I find it if anything kind of a pointless meander to nowhere.

Perhaps what he has done is create a novel combination. He's brought "V2 Rocket Fandom" imagery to a sketch of the Neufeld biography, and maybe that means something.

What I am not seeing here is any kind of a novel epistemology. There is no new way of seeing the story here, it comes across as a kind of clumsy reprise of the photo essay of the 1960s, without even the benefit of telling a new story. The refusal to "merely illustrate" the story seems to add nothing much to the method, and the need to pile in large quantities of visual material, likewise.

Like Asselin's Monsanto this is just a big exercise in "what the actual fuck?" to no real purpose, simply repeating a well-known set of ideas, briefly, clumsily, and with a lot of more or less pointless pictures.

This is not to say that the method couldn't produce something, only that in the few cases I have looked at closely, it has not.