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Sunday, July 30, 2023

Rubrics

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 J├Ârg 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.