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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.


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

    Curse you critics, with your impenetrable technical talk!

    I think that the problem with most wannabe photographers (and artists in general) is that they are not sufficiently weird / marginal / strange / eccentric, or however you want you put it. They are, in the main, straight arrow types, which is a massive strength as a person, but not a big help in seeing and feeling what others do not yet see or feel, and thereby to make interesting work (in any medium, let alone photography, which is surely one of the most difficult mediums to put a personal stamp on).

    OTOH in my observation being "strange" is not to be recommended as a lifestyle; it never seems to end well, people get hurt, and no amount of great work is a substitute for a normal, happy life. But, endlessly polishing a boat? Now *that* is weird...


    1. Isn't part of the beauty of photography that even the most mundane and straight arrow life can be elevated and seen as beautiful? You don't have to be fringe to make some stellar work.

  2. The consumer photo industry is good at channeling people into this mentality, prove yourself to them and your peers and attain that coveted retweet. After all, who else would be your audience? Do many non photographers actually buy photobooks?

    Meyerowitz made a true historical work with "Aftermath". Did people buy it because it's a unique piece of history? Or did photographers buy it because the photos are so impressive, the access so difficult to achieve, the situation so (hopefully) unrepeatable?

    But the opposite can also be the case. Do activists buy work showcasing activism because they like the imagery or because they like the message? Often the imagery is awful, just people holding signs - but the non photographic eye sees something we may not, just as a photographic eye may comment on the light striking the face just right the non photographic eye may comment on the pun on the placard.

  3. Almost all art being produced *as art* is about itself. This has become the goal, perhaps a bad Modernist tic that nothing has come along to replace (AI is of course its ultimate manifestation, machines programmed to imitate). Photography is late to this game. You are correct that it has penetrated to the level of phone photography. I submit though that the vast bulk of photos aren't taken or viewed with this, or anything really, in mind. It is truly a mindless recording of personal experience, much as one forms ephemeral memories of ... trivia. These are the trillions upon trillions of mindless snapshots parked on phones and in the cloud, never to be seen again, if they were ever even so much as glanced at. What I find fascinating is that lurking in this vast midden are probably some pretty interesting pictures. That idea appeals to me.

    1. Isn't that what art "is"? Produced for it's own sake and enjoyment? If it has a message or purpose then it is design or advertising. Art is that which has no value other than how it is, I'm sure I've seen that written somewhere.

    2. I kinda like the vernacular snaps, though. They at least have a kind of honesty to them, and often that comes through. It's really the stuff that's fabricated explicitly and solely to please a specific group of insiders that rubs me the wrong way.

      But there's tons of stuff out there and it's all got something going on!

  4. The essential action of the photograph is nothing more than what a photographer intends, but literalism is an illusion that humans have used to convey thought since our cave days. The tools have changed, that’s all.

    Omer C

    1. I find myself unable to make sense of your remark, but it's always good to see that you're still angrily lurking around, Omer!

    2. Angry simply for disagreeing with you?

      And by the by, the original comment in regards to a collective, mine.

      A new system for commenting. Sigh.
      (I know it's not you.)

      Omer C

    3. You've been commenting on my writing for years, Omer, here and elsewhere, and always striking a note between dismissive and angry. It's always a little odd when you pop up again, because you seem to have such a low opinion of my ideas.

  5. You’re smart and a good writer so you're seemingly incessant thrashing of photography seems like, why?

    Yeah, I get pissed when I sense an effort to curb photography for the sake of 'respect' which smacks of self serving efforts to get feathers. What's interesting is the folks who call for curbing 'street photography' in particular would never suggest the same for writing, painting, music and so on. And you’ve been part of that.

    You've said photography is comparatively easy, so maybe being critical of it is easy as well.

    1. He isn't talking about photography broadly though. He's talking about a specific intention behind practicing photography. Like the difference between working out to be healthy and working out to achieve a certain muscle definition for aesthetic. Both involve burning calories but one is for wellbeing and the other is for being noticed.