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.