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.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

We Need a Word

Well, if not a word, at least we need to admit the existence of a category.

Since the inception of photography, we've been treating photorealistic figurative depictions of stuff and photographs as more or less the same thing. Yes, it's certainly true that there have always been exceptions. Photos that aren't very figurative, and paintings that are very very realistic, and so on. Technically we have acknowledged the distinctions.

In practical terms, though, as a society, as a culture, we have tended to grumpily brush those away. Abstract photographs have to struggle a little to get traction. Photorealistic paintings were rare and weird. We could, in practical terms, treat the two categories as the same by simply glaring at the occasional exceptions.

And yet there is a category of figurative photorealistic things. A photograph of a banana, whether you believe my specific theories about photorealistic depictions, hits differently than some abstract expressionist painting of a banana, or a pointillist painting, or even a Renaissance still life thing. You've got to paint very very carefully indeed to land inside the same reaction as a photo of a banana — even a black and white photo. But you know, you can paint that carefully.

There are objects that people look at and think "why, it looks just like a banana" and there are other objects that people look at and think "what a nice painting of a banana" and still others where they think "what the fuck is that, is it supposed to be a banana?"

None of these categories have crisp edges, of course. There's an element of subjectivity, and even the viewer's mood.

The categories nevertheless exist, and they don't mind being a bit fuzzy around the edges.

Also, we can't really ignore the situation much longer.

We've entered the land of dipshits asking if AI renderings are "photographs" and the answer is obviously "no, and you are dumb, please close your food hole to muffle the noises coming out of it."

Just as a placeholder, let's call these photorealistic figurative representations of stuff photoids. It's my blog, you can't stop me.

Most photographs are photoids and, up until now at least, most photoids are photographs.

There are things that are obviously photographs. Let's say a relatively small amount of post-processing or whatever. I literally do not care. It's a fuzzy category, the edges probably contain a lot of heavily photoshopped or composited stuff, or AI renders based on a photo, or whatever. It's fuzzy, who cares? There's stuff in the middle of the category that pretty much everyone is going to agree is pretty much definitely a photo (a frame of Tri-X souped in D76 and printed on Ilford grade 2 paper with minimal burning and dodging, say, but it doesn't matter.)

There are things that are photoids. A lot of photographs, for one thing, but also a lot of AI renders, and some Chuck Close paintings.

There are photographs that pretty definitely are not photoids, notably anything that's pretty abstract. Some photomicrograph of a bug's wing or whatever, so close it represents nothing you can identify. So it's Tri-X souped in D76 and printed on Ilford, it's a photograph but not a photoid because it doesn't look like anything. Except to a bug scientist, for whom maybe it is still a photoid. The categories, while real, are both fuzzy and subjective.

There are photoids that are not photographs, like some AI renders and some Chuck Close paintings.

The point here is that photoid and photograph represent different categories. The categories overlap a lot, but they're not the same, and they're defined completely differently. Define them how you will in the details, it doesn't matter, they're still different things.

The advent of widespread AI renders of photoids means, I subject, that we can no longer usefully ignore the distinction. Someone please think up a better word than photoid.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

The Research-Based Photobook

Jörg Colberg published a review of Lewis Bush's recent book within, I think an hour or so of mine. His opinion is somewhat different. In his review, Colberg describes this as a good example of something he terms a "research-based photobook."

What the hell is this object? Well, obviously it's a photo book where someone does some research. I can think of some examples, but I haven't read most of them, so I can't really judge. But let us take Bush's book as a good example of the form, because Colberg says it is. Let's consider it as the product of a body of research.

The citations are interesting. Bush read a lot of stuff, a surprising amount of it is fiction, but most of the rest is what we'd call secondary or tertiary sources. He's reading books that other people have written about men and things, and pastiching information taken from them into his essay, like a gigantic high school book report or, more exactly, like a Master's Thesis. He seems to have read no files, no original letters or writing, he filed no FOIA requests.

This is not an indictment. I don't read a lot of files and I've never filed a FOIA request in my life. I don't intend to. What I mean to point out here is that what we think of as traditional research is, if present at all, present in a kind of lightweight way.

What Lewis did put real effort into was traveling around taking photographs of von Braun related places, and rendering these photos as cyanotypes. This is pretty typical of the form, I think. Long time readers will recall my remarks on Monsanto, which is a similar kind of thing. The text there is a dumb recitation of a standard leftist position, up to and including the factual errors. The pictures are just thoroughly dull snaps of random locations of places where something happened once upon a time.

What I think of as research is a much more in-depth thing, a much more thorough gathering of facts and a synthesis of those facts.

This is a very specific thing, a Western Scientific thing. An Enlightenment Thing, if you will.

I'm pretty sure that what Colberg and Bush and all the rest are up to is almost explicitly rejecting Enlightenment thinking (which rejection is something of a hobby in academia today) which, well, ok. I think this way of approaching knowledge and the world has done some pretty neat things, and I'm not convinced by the argument that the many bad things flowed out of the method. I'm not convinced that the Enlightenment caused colonialism, for instance, I think maybe it's just a thing that happened at the same time. But what the hell do I know?

My suspicion is that these people are essentially theorizing a new way of knowing, a new epistemology (as the kids would say) that is built around seeing things in photographs.

Somehow, I think the idea is, that by looking at a bunch of blurry archival photos of von Braun, and by looking at some blue tinted photos from Peenemünde, we will come to new knowledge about the thing the book is about. Somehow, as "faith" in the religious sense can be seen as a kind of a way of knowing, this new way of knowing will inform us and enrich us in ways that Enlightenment epistemology cannot. This sounds kind of dumb, but it's not as dumb as all that.

Anyone who travels knows that there is a way of knowing a place that comes from simply wandering around it a bit. You don't know facts about the place, although you'll pick a few of those up most likely. What you're getting is some sort of partial sense of the place. It's recognizably a kind of knowledge, but not something you can write down very easily, nothing you can summarize as a set of bullet points. Call it flaneur-epistemology. The way of knowing that comes by wandering around.

There are some photo books that do transmit, in some sense, this kind of thing. Robert Frank's The Americans is maybe the most famous one. Does it teach us about America? There seems to be no doubt. What, exactly, does it teach us? Well, that's hard to explain, and it's most efficiently explained by showing you the book. Some flavor that is recognizably "knowledge" appears, somehow.

So, there is some precedent for this kind of visual/vibes way of knowing things. This kind of visual "epistemology" of whatever it is, and we know it can be done for a place.

Blaustein's book, Extinction Party I think offered up something as well. On the one hand, there's nothing we don't know in it. On the other hand, a bunch of pictures of colorful stuff does give us something that is, at least if you squint, recognizable as new knowledge. Not new facts, not new information, but something you didn't have before. At least a different shading on how you "know" about consumer culture.

Does it work for history? Or a "topic" like rocketry? I don't know. I don't think that Lewis's book accomplishes it particularly? But perhaps it would work better for someone who didn't grow up with the Time-Life book "Man and Space" on the shelf.

I think that it is a lot less effective with topics that are not places. Maybe Blaustein's book argues that it works for "culture" in some larger sense, as well, or maybe "place" is just a special case of "culture."

Photographs take you to places, specifically the place in the photograph. There is a pretty straight line from looking at a bunch of photos from somewhere, and literally wandering around in that same somewhere. That kind of flaneur-epistemology translates directly into a photo book.

One does not "go to" history, or rocketry, or linguistics. One cannot wander around there and gather vibes.

It is not at all clear that the basic operating characteristics of photographs, the "how photographs work" has an interpretation that really lets things like general research-based photo books work. I am not sure that there is a way that looking at a bunch of pictures produces any kind of knowledge, novel or otherwise. Certainly the books don't sell, and the only people who seem to get anything out of them are those with a deeply vested interest in the form.

On the one hand, I think this is a thing which can and sometimes does work. It certainly can work for a place. What I can't tell is whether it cannot work for, say, Wernher von Braun, or whether Lewis simply failed to make it work. Is it impossible? Is it very very hard? Or is it actually fairly easy, in the right hands?

I suspect that it is, at the very least, very very hard, but that's just a theory.

Monday, April 17, 2023

Crit: Depravity's Rainbow by Lewis Bush

I backed this thing on kickstarter ages ago, because I wanted a copy to look at, and here it is! My wish has been granted. Lewis is more or less the best of the Serious Academic Photography weenies that I pay attention to, and as such I have somewhat mixed feels on him. He's sometimes very very stupid, sometimes quite bright, and most of time he's plugging along doing OK. Kind of like most of us. Takes himself a trifle too seriously to really be taken seriously, if you know what I mean, but other than that he's ok.

So what about this book? It purports to explore the dark side of space exploration and whatnot, and it took Lewis 5 years to research and produce. I've been a little bit of a space nut myself for most of my life, so I wasn't sure what to expect. Was Lewis going to dig up deep mysteries and reveal dark histories never before seen? Or at least unknown to me? Or was it going to be a paint by numbers Space History with the Glum dial turned up and a lot of bitching about colonialism added?

Well. It's a bit of this and a bit of that. I don't much like the book, but in the end he does actually manage to land the plane after a fashion. I like his book Metropole a lot more, though it suffers from some of the same issues. He wasn't overthinking it quite as much. But let's look at this thing.

There are, roughly, three major chunks to the thing. One is a set of archival photos with captions that sketch the life and career of one Wernher von Braun, Nazi Rocket Guy who came to the USA and more or less ran the programs that eventually put dudes on the surface of the moon. The second chunk is a set of cyanotype photos of sites relevant to the Nazi rocket program, photos made by Lewis in the present. The third piece is a 15,000 word essay that kind of tries to tie it all together.

As a side note, it's faintly interesting to me that Lewis photographed German stuff, but not American stuff. I realize that the USA is a little farther away and harder to get around to all the sites, but I feel like this is an asymmetry. A few pics of Huntsville would not be amiss.

Let's take the chunks one at a time.

The archival photos, interleaved in chunks with the cyanotypes, make up the first section of the book. The format is pretty consistent, this pattern is repeated: 6 photos, each on a page with a nearly blank page opposite bearing only a date, for a total of 12 pages. This is followed by 2 more pages with captions for the 6 photos. The 6 photos in each block alternate, 3 and 3, between a history of von Braun leading up to and through the war, and a history leading from WWII through the moon landing. The second one runs backwards, so the two narratives land together (the end of the German story and the beginning of the American one) at Operation Paperclip in which the USA recruited a bunch of Nazi scientists at the end of WWII.

This is, inevitably, the "Memento" trope, and it always feels silly to me. It worked in "Memento" for very specific reasons. Copying the trope usually comes across as merely copying the trope for the sake of the trope, not for the extremely idiosyncratic storytelling capability it offers.

The dates opposing each photograph are just indicators, not necessarily the date of the photo, which is confusing. For example, the photo of Wernher von Braun as a toddler is marked with his date of birth. The dates serve only to lead you to the correct caption, found in the last 2 pages of the 14 page archival-photo block. In order to read the captions with the photos, you are endlessly flipping. It's worse than putting all the captions at the end of the book, which you only do if the captions don't have any content anyways. This structure is maddening.

The captions are actually a narrative, only loosely related to the photos, so in theory you could just read them separately. You'd have to read half of them forward, and the go backward to read the others, in order to assemble the tale in chronological order. This is also maddening.

Lewis has some ideas here, "it resembles the trajectory of a ballistic missile, up, and then down" and "it represents the duality of good and evil" and "I have found that people flip through photobooks backwards" but none of these explanations is, to my eye, satisfactory. This is just some doofus overthinking structure, desperate to make Something New, and inventing a mess.

His other explanation holds a little more water. By folding von Braun's life back on itself like this, he wants to locate parallels between the first half and the second. In a way he does, there are photos that pair up — three von Braun kids, three astronauts; German rocket blowing up, American rocket blowing up; and so on. It's not clear to me that these parallels are meaningful, but they do lend a kind of visual structure if you ignore the captions.

The result is, after you laboriously unpack it, a sort of thin bio of Wernher von Braun. It is also pretty neutral, which will turn out to be important. You will literally learn a great deal more from the Wikipedia page on the man, and the photos somehow fail to even give you an impression of what the man looked like. They're overly enlarged, often indistinct, and only occasionally relevant. Blurry photos of rockets blowing up. A picture of some Nazi standing, we are told, in front of von Braun. It's impossible to tell which of the several blurry fellows in the background is von Braun.

It is frankly unclear what the hell Lewis is trying to accomplish here. On the face of it, he's sketching a bio, but the bio is so thin and this material is so physically large in the book that he simply has to have something more in mind than simply sketching a bio. In other venues he tells us he's trying to present the two halves of von Braun's career in a kind of evil/Nazi vs. good/USA light, while simultaneously contesting that simplistic understanding of von Braun, and I guess that kind of comes through? Given that this is the standard modern understanding of von Braun, it's not clear how much of what's coming through is Lewis, and how much is just stuff that I know? And there are just so many god damned pages of this stuff!

Well, moving on. Let's look at the cyanotypes.

Between each block of archival photos, we get a set of full bleed double-truck cyanotypes taken by Lewis in the last couple of years, of sites and whatnot in Europe relevant to his story. They're mostly just trees and shit, maybe some broken down railroad tracks, a crumbling building, some tunnels, etc. This is where prisoners did this, this is where rockets were launched, etc. They feel a lot like Sally Mann's Battlefields, to be honest. Those are also "look, it's a scruffy field" photos, where something awful happened a long time ago.

Sally Mann has earned a little more generosity, and the wet plate process she uses adds a meaningful layer of crud to her photos. The many many defects look a little like the ghosts of bullets or shells, that kind of thing. At least, if you're generous and squint a bit.

Lewis hasn't earned much, and honestly the shenanigans with the archival material are so irritating it's hard to be generous with his cyanotypes. It's also not clear what meaning, if any, the cyanotype process adds. Perhaps he's citing engineering drawings? It's not clear, but that is exactly the sort of twee gibberish he'd be getting up to. If I had been doing that, I'd have rendered them in high contrast, to make the connection clearer, but Lewis seems to have actually worked quite hard and skillfully to make "good prints" using the terrible cyanotype process. If engineering drawing is in fact his reference, he's undermined himself here. It does not help him that every asshole is doing cyanotypes this year, so he feels like a trend-follower.

Anyways, ok. I will accept the cyanotypes, albeit grudgingly. They're not brilliant, I think that idea could have been handled better, but at least the pictures make a point about the reality, the recency, the, no really right here no shit slave laborers were dying while building V-2s. Stipulated.

Onwards now to the essay, which occupies the last third of the book. It's on (sigh) different paper stock, because of course it is. This fucking "must have several paper stocks" shit drives me nuts. There's no point to it and it makes handling the book weird, but all the cool kids are doing it. This is definitely trend-following.

The essay is a great long thing that backs out a little and covers the same material from a more general point of view. Kind of a geopolitical history of rocketry.

The way you normally write an essay like this is that you read a bunch of shit, and then you go off and have a think. Then you write a new essay with your own thoughts and ideas, your own spin on the details, and so on. You cite relevant bits and pieces of the things you read. You do synthesis.

The other way to write it, which is traditionally how Master's student's write their theses, is you collage up bits and pieces of stuff more or less as you read them, stringing together chunks of your research material in what you hope is some sort of narrative, and then you try to wrap it up with a Big Finish of your own devising. This is pastiche rather than synthesis.

Lewis's essay feels a little too much like the latter. He read a lot of stuff, which, well good on him I guess. He does mortar the bits together competently, so it does read pretty well, and good god does he have a lot of citations. There's a cite for every 100 words, more or less, which seems like rather a lot and rather betrays the collage-effect.

The content of the essay is more or less fine. It's more detailed than the von Braun sketch bio the first 2/3 of the book occupied, and more general. There's a general flavor of "OMG colonialism is just sooooo bad" throughout, but it's not too awful. Yes, war is bad, and yes, US policy around rockets is pretty warlike, and that sucks. Insofar as the essay has a politics, I agree with it.

In the end, though, when Lewis does wrap up with a couple hundred words of Big Finish in the approved style, he does actually land the plane. Kinda. He concludes that after 5 years of research he's found the official modern position on von Braun to be correct. There's really no way to know if he was fucking Nazi scum, or just an enthusiastic rocket guy swept along with the rest of the ordinary blokes in Germany in the service of a totalitarian nightmare. Lewis doesn't really mention that this is the standard reading, but I suppose we can forgive him that. von Braun was rather lionized at various times, to one degree or another.

I can't really decide if the book is doing any kind of service. It's obviously very much over-designed and overthought, so there's no way I can actually like it. It's not really revealing anything at all new, an hour on Wikipedia would give you 99% of the material in it, and you might come away knowing a great deal more about rockets. It doesn't actually present a particularly new or surprising point of view, we've been wrestling with von Braun's past with some degree of seriousness for some decades, and everyone's arrived at the same conclusion.

If you're not interested in space, you probably don't know any of this shit, though. It's possible that you'll learn a bunch of really interesting stuff, and for the intended audience the over-designed photobook is probably the only way they'll ever learn this material. I do rather think Lewis oversells his own point of view. His view is almost precisely aligned with the consensus view, and I'm not sure that this comes through, and that could be a bit dicey.

Taken purely as a "photobook" I really dunno. There's the visual structure of formally similar frames in the archival photo section, and the cyanotypes kind of work to a degree. I don't really think it's particularly notable, though. It's kind of ringing the changes on some overworked territory in a pretty lackluster way. Not that "hey, let's make a book of archival photos" is ever very successful, it's a pretty shitty idea that basically never works; but it doesn't particularly work here, either. Reaching for an alternative process to try to invest your pictures with meaning is also dicey, but it does actually work sometimes. I don't know if it's working here.

Taken together it's a sort of meh photobook with a kind of meh conglomeration of writing and kind of overdone design. I'm not seeing it as any greater than the sum of its fairly dubious parts.

I think Lewis ultimately wants to be Allan Sekula, but he's just not. He seems unable to formulate a novel or even interesting point of view. Metropole, which I like, presented a 100% standard prog-left view of real estate development. Huge swathes of Londoners hold precisely Lewis's values here, and most of them know in broad strokes the kinds of things his research turned up. He's got an ongoing project on offshore finance that feels very much the same. He's digging up publicly accessible and ultimately boring details that reify what everyone Lewis socializes with already "knows" and adding in a few pictures that don't really contribute anything.

To be honest, I don't really know Sekula as a photographer at all, and what I can recall is at least as underwhelming at Lewis's pictures, but as an essayist and researcher he could really pull some shit together. He had actual ideas that went beyond merely reflecting his social circle.

Lewis, I think, needs to spend more time with himself, trying to figure out what he himself actually thinks about things. My take is that he views research as an expedition to find things that confirm a point of view he already has (although, to be fair, I think he started out aiming to "expose" von Braun as Nazi scum, so maybe I have this backwards.) If he treated research more as a way to fill his brain up with material which he would then digest, and thus produce a novel frame, a synthesis, I think he'd be a lot better off.

This isn't that book, but he's still pretty young and he's out there trying. He pretends to not give a shit what people think, and eventually maybe he'll actually get there. I don't think he's going to be Sekula, but he could get a lot closer if he shook free of a few habits.

Friday, April 14, 2023

Crit: 77 rue du Prince Moulay Abdellah by Tony Fouhse

In the spirit of disclosure, Tony asked me to review this work, but I'd already resolved to do so. Possibly I would have punted without Tony's nudge, but you should consider this to be essentially if not literally un-nudged. Also, I like and respect Tony so this isn't going to be an unbiased review. I'll attempt, as always, to approach it in a neutral way with probably mixed results.

This little project is, for now, strictly online and opens with a short explanation. You should go read that and at least glance at the photos. We'll pick up when you get back.

To start with, the reminds me of at least one other set of photos. André Kertész did a whole book of pictures taken from his window, many of them looking down on Washington Square Park at people milling about being people. I have this notion that either Steichen or Stieglitz did a similar thing, but a cursory google didn't turn it up so I gave up. The point is, this is a point of view that's been exploited before, and for very good reasons.

It's tempting to say that it's been done before, but I don't think that's at all fair. I think that is a little more like "using a 50mm lens" than "photographing a guy covered with bees against a white background" in the sense that you can say different things with the same technique. You can shape many stories, perhaps infinitely many, around "looking down on people from a high place."

In this case, we have a highly structured thing that's filled with motion. We see the terrace (I think) in question, and then the view from it. We examine a building, and pan down to look at people on the street next to it. Another building, another pan down. Then the author takes a trip down the stairs, onto the street, some city sights, the terrace again from the street level, and then back up the elevator. We examine a a third building, a rooftop, pan down to the people one more time.

Verse, Verse, Bridge, Verse. Just like a pop song.

At the same time there is a sense of passing time. We see the same things in the daylight, in the morning, at night, and so on. The "bridge" passage starts in the morning descending the stairs and ends in the evening with the return to the terrace.

All these things create mood a-plenty. Despite the fact that the whole thing is shot from a distance, at a very real physical remove, there is plenty of affect in play here. The use of night-time plays a role here, but also the people depicted are very much alive, in motion, doing and living.

The high viewpoint creates a sort of theatrical viewpoint (this observation has been made ad nauseam about the Kertész book.) You're in the balcony, watching the show, but the show is life. This is, ultimately, why this is a technique rather than a trope (insofar as that means anything.) Life is inconstant, the show we're observing is endlessly renewed, endlessly different. The distance, rather than draining off affect, lends mystery. We have no idea what any of these people are up to, not really. One of them might be doing something with laundry, but we don't know what she's thinking, who she is. Why does that guy have two gas cans, and where is he going with them? The kid seems excited, but by what?

What amuses me, here, is that while we are watching the play unfold before us, Fouhse has built a strong narrative that takes place entirely here rather than there. The action that is legible to us is the action of the photographer. He moves here and there, time passes for him and he returns, and so on. The action in front of the lens is interesting, arguably riveting if you give it a chance, but completely illegible.

Hence the fascination and the mystery.

Overall the thing yields up a mood, a sense of presence. I can't quite believe that it reveals any essence of being in Casablanca in a general way, but I do think it gets at the sense of being on that specific terrace in that specific way. And thence, it gets at a piece of being in Casablanca, but at the same time a piece of being a distant observer. It isn't just any balcony, it's this specific place, but at the same time it feels like any balcony, all balconies.

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Photography sans Affect

Well, I was gratified to see that a few people still swing by now and then to read my languishing little pseudo-publication here, and thank you all for that. It doth warm the cockles etc.

I've been thinking about the affectless photography I was bitching about in the previous remarks, from a handful of angles, since it seemed to get me all het up. Thus, some random notes which might or might not lead anywhere. I write to find these things out, so let's find out.

Firstly, there is clearly a bag of tricks in play. As one commenter noted, simply isolating your subject inside a larger more-or-less blank frame creates a lot of emotional distance. Remember the triteism "if your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough!" This trick literally pushes the subject away in space. Given how photographs function, you react to such a picture as if the subject were physically quite far away.

Flatten the tonality. Make the bulk of the frame fall within a narrow range of values, usually mid-tones, sometimes a little brighter. Again, this is a big no-no in terms of the way I was taught to do photography, and again it tends to damp emotional response. Masses of darkness especially lend a punchy emotional quality, for reasons I do not pretend to understand.

Remove people.

If you must have people, direct them to display little to no emotion, and consider having them unfocus their gaze.

Every one of these things is on full display on the APP web site, but also every MFA program (not just the North American ones, but they call them MAs in Europe I guess) and many other tranches of Serious Art Photography. There's just a lot of it about. You can see it, for instance, in the Mahler's Kleinstadt — the whole book is flat grays and dead-eyed teenagers, and even features a few centrally isolated subjects.

As I noted at the time, this one literally has the two girls doing the thing where you huddle together to fit in the frame. If you crop it closely you get a quite standard and kind of charming photo booth snap.

Ok, so we can see the techniques on display, and we can recognize them as being apparently designed to drain affect from the picture. These things are made, quite literally, by doing the opposite of what people were taught in the 1970s and 1980s to do in order to produce emotional impact.

I honestly have no idea why anyone would do this stuff, but I'll hurl some ideas at the wall.

Part of this feels to me like an effort to show things as they really are. The idea is, maybe, that we should document what these things actually look like. In reality, we normally don't walk right up to the thing, we stand back; in reality people often do have a neutral expression; in reality the shadows often are not all that deep and dramatic.

I counter that by remarking that in reality things are not small, flat, and printed on little rectangles of paper. Do you want to render things "as they are" or do you want us to react "as they were?" These are two quite different goals.

Affect, you might argue, distracts from the actual appearance of the things, it muddies the water with emotion. Which is probably true, and if all you're interested in is surfaces then perhaps approaching photography this way is a good idea.

It is essential to my philosophy of photography, and of criticism, that photography's strongest suit is that it recreates the emotional, somatic, experience of being there. It can do lots of other things, but this is the unique thing it does; this is the thing it does best. So, when people do things which undermine that, I more or less insist that they bring a strong A-game to whatever it is that they're up to, and all too often they do not.

Another reason, obviously, for doing photography like this instead of like that is precisely because that is how they did it in the 1970s and it's not the 1970s any more. We need to break new artistic ground!

Maybe it's just one of those pendulum things. 120 years ago photographers were trying to cram extra affect into their pictures by hand-working the negatives and doing Pictorialism. That was, people eventually decided, a bad idea. Hence Modernism and so forth, which definitely drained off a lot of the excess affect and certainly produced any number of heartless photographs. There was at least a kind of optimism to these photos, though.

The modern affect-free style does rather reflect the times, at least the times as seen by the Serious Artist. If you want to gesture vaguely at "everything sucks and I have a sad" this stuff is great. My trouble is, basically, that I don't give a shit if you have a sad, because while you try to hide it and cosplay poverty, you're an utterly uninteresting trust-fund brat. As photographers I suspect they want to "document" the world "as it is" and since all artists are required to see the world as fundamentally broken, here we are. Some of the styling tics of modernism are on display if you squint, but none of the optimism.

Nobody is going to give some up and coming artist a book deal or a gallery show if they're optimistic for god's sake. Actually now that I think about it I did run across this Fen de Villiers guy who seems to be speed-running 1930s Futurism or something. He's associated with a bunch of pseudo-fascists. He seems to have gotten a couple little shows at a local gallery in Antwerp. He's optimistic, in a kind of horrifying way. This video is hilarious, though:

Maybe a little too much affect here. There may be limits to how much affect you want. Anyways, I see a lot of optimistic and charming art here in Bellingham, and sometimes it's really very good. At the other end, Jeff Koons seems to be a relentlessly happy bugger, so maybe it's just something in the middle.

Certainly nobody actually likes this shit except people on the inside. APP functions, I am informed, exceptionally well, but it's fairly clear that it's because Iain has worked out how to build a viable press around the extremely tiny available market for boring, numb, photos.

It is possible to sell photo books to the general audience, just not this stuff. A bunch of nudes? Sure. A bunch of photos of Obama? Definitely. A bunch of ... whatever the hell the celebrity of the day shot? I bet Beckham's kid's terrible book sold a lot more copies than anything MACK has ever printed. But Michael Mack doesn't want to print that, he wants to print Serious Artists, and eke out 100 books here and 100 books there. Well, it's his publishing house and he can do whatever he wants! I don't much like it, though.

On a final note, I recall wringing my hands over the absence of "schools" in modern photography. There is nothing, I moaned, analogous to the Impressionists (or choose your own school) but I see that as of now this is wrong. There is very much a style of the present. Scroll down the front page of Another Place Press and if you have any sensitivity of the soul at all, it will jump out at it. It is a flat and affectless photography, a numb and numbing puppet theater of the world.

I wonder what they'll call it in 50 years?