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Sunday, July 30, 2023


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don't think there is a universal rubric.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is, however, all relative.


  1. Composition (i.e., of photographs) is not the same thing as "graphic design." Most photographers haven't studied graphic design, and their adaptations of some of the more obvious design tropes invariably come across as weak and clumsy.

    One of the key hallmarks of graphic design is an understanding of how to work with typematter in all its forms. Maybe this looks simple, but it ain't.

    Needless to say, this hardly registers with the typical photographer, whether they've got an MFA or not.

    What you seem to be referring to is more commonly called formalism. I think care in composition, taking into account all the pictorial elements (not just an arrangement of 2d shapes) is critical to bringing out the photographer's intentions.

    As an end in itself, it seldom transcends an exercise in cleverness, and isn't useful except for those who measure success as an index of cleverness.

  2. (apologies in advance for an unstructured response here)

    What rankles me a little about Bleak House type projects is that, well, some of the photographs in these projects are usually actually alright!

    I'm a pretty comfortable (to use Mike's word) formalist, in the sense that I don't always give a shit if a lone photograph can be perceived to 'say' much more than 'hey, someone thought this little scene was curious or good, and you're looking at it right now!' so long as it's vaguely compelling.

    These photographers probably also grouped together/agreed to take part because they found they vibe together a little, maybe they enjoy vaguely similar kinds of images, and that's cool. And that's my big problem with it all: this is about ~*~vibes~*~. It's an aesthetic, or a kind of subject matter, and if they dropped the pretentious YEA IT"S DICKENSIAN BRO Deep Curation bullshit, clubbed their better images together with some of the ones that work well when in a group but not alone ("atmosphere-adders"?), and then decided on what they thought of the work, it might even be good!

    It'd probably not even be particularly conceptual -- it wouldn't 'speak' to much, but it might have a small story or feeling to impart. This need to fit to the brief, to bend images to the will of 'curatorial' concepts rather than develop them organically, in tandem with a habit of trends changing every 3 or 4 years, means projects like that will never mature or be born anything better than still.