Friday, September 15, 2023

The Photo Grift

A number of threads of thought crystallized this morning, abruptly. Let's see if I can write them down.

In 1800s quite a number of photographers mostly took pictures and were paid for pictures and that was that. Gradually companies formed to supply those photographers, and those companies presumably made money. There were amateurs, to be sure, but they knew who they were, and there weren't all that many of them in relative terms.

In the 1900s the number of amateurs exploded. Kodak and others enabled a several generations of nerdy fellows to take up the Hobby Of Photography. Magazines evolved to serve them, camera manufacturers built cameras and advertised in the magazines, and so on. A whole economic thing arose to serve the enthusiast. And, to be sure, many of those enthusiasts aspired to "go pro" in some sense, but most of them didn't. It was a hobby.

By the time I arrived on the scene the industry was largely funded by amateur photographers. They bought cameras, film, and magazine subscriptions, and that was the money that made the industry hum. Yes, Vogue bought photos and paid photographers, but that was not the engine that drove the industry.

Enter the digital camera. Suddenly everyone with disposable income could be a photographer. You didn't need a darkroom, you didn't need to be particularly dweeby, it became a normal, even cool, thing for basically anyone to do. Good! How fun! Now you can enjoy my hobby too!

A little later youtube arrives and the concept of a "content creator" shows up about the same time.

Poeple are blogging and setting up forums and so on. We start to see guys like Michael Reichmann on the scene.

At this point there is a substantial shift. It's no longer pretty much just photography companies selling cameras and film to hobbyists. It's Content Creators and Influencers selling workshops, memberships, subscriptions, and advertisements. It's a money spinner. Anyone can play. Set up a web site, crib some articles from someplace else, and watch the money roll in!

Well, not quite. You have to be both lucky, and skilled at being a Content Creator. It wouldn't hurt you to be pretty good at photography (Reichmann was a skilled technician, for example) but it honestly isn't even required.

In the background here there is a constant thrum of "you could go pro, you could make money at photography, all you need is whatever it is that I am selling." I don't even know why this turned up. I think maybe the Content Creators felt the need to justify their revenue, which they couldn't on the basis on their fairly thin content.

I don't mean to suggest that in 1990 everyone was an innocent and happy hobbyist without a thought of going pro, and that 20 years later it's some Lord of the Flies situation with everyone desperate to become a Pro Photographer. Not at all. But there's been a shift in mood. The vague hope, the idea, is a little more present. Maybe a lot more.

You could probably point at economic conditions, maybe everyone's a little more hungry, a little more on the lookout for a quick buck. I dunno. It doesn't matter, because the point is that it's a thing.

Anyways, to my eye from the 2010s there was an enormous wave of Content Creators attempting to take money off of photographers who were themselves looking for fame and/or fortune. The main thing to note here is that the successful ones were good at being Content Creators; they may or may not have been interested in photography, but whether they were or not doesn't matter. They're "professional" Content Creators which means they have a whole bunch of skills around attracting eyeballs. This is their actual expertise.

In some sense, this is the same as it ever was. It's not like Nikon was giving cameras away in the good old days, they were definitely making money. The difference to my eye is that in the first place when you gave Nikon money you actually got a camera, and in the second place there was less of a "you too could be a pro, you could make money at this." In fact, Nikon had several lines of camera, and only one was explicitly the "many money with this camera" line. The others were all implicitly "have a good time taking photos with these cameras."

In the 2010s you often didn't get anything. You could watch a Tony Northrup video or read a Lloyd Chambers blog post, with the result that you would be older and dumber by the end. You could pay a few thousand dollars for some workshop, with the result that you'd have a folder with 10,000 completely uninteresting photographs of icebergs or whatever. Even then, though, at least everyone was trying to give you some value. Lloyd at least did (does?) detailed if pointless testing. I'm sure Tony thought he was telling you.. something useful?

Somewhere in here MFA programs arose or were retooled based on, apparently, little more than "we can put butts in seats at $10,000 per butt-year" and guys like Colberg got jobs teaching in them. Based on the results it's honestly unclear wtf they were even trying to teach these kids? Most of them, of course, have not become successful artists although many have given a bunch more money to glorified vanity presses. Again, there was at least an attempt to deliver value, kinda. I am sure that Colberg really thought he was helping. I dare say some of his colleagues were more cynical.

And now here we are in the 2020s. At this point to be honest I think everyone's given up, and they're just trying to extract as much money as possible for as little effort as possible.

I, for instance, am apparently still publishing articles on Luminous Landscape (no, I am not, I wrote the piece currently at the bottom of the front page in 2017, not the August 2023 date indicated.) PetaPixel and fstoppers are descending rapidly toward click-farm link-mill stage, with articles about reddit posts and other articles describing videos they found on youtube. The filler doesn't quite dominate. Yet. It will.

Andy Adams, a relentless engagement farmer across many platforms, has a substack newsletter he's making thousands of dollars a year on, which is insipid to the point of transparency but which offers "exposure" to photographers who almost certainly make less money on photography than he does.

And this is the theme. The money flows from photographers to everyone else, the same as it always has.

The difference is that the photographer's aren't getting anything for their money, or for their attention. Andy's newsletter is read by absolutely nobody except your peers, who are all also vaguely hoping to "go pro" or become well known, better known, something, some day. Nobody reads PetaPixel or fstoppers except the same crowd, and on and on. The content available is essentially nil on all fronts, it's just the same recycled drivel, or often literally nothing at all. Newsletters about "how to find inspiration, we interviewed 5 photographers" will tell you it's "light" or "taking a walk." Youtube videos will begin and end with 3 or 4 minutes "like, share, and subscribe" with 2 minutes of content in between which is even more insipid than "I am inspired by the light!"

All of the "content" around photography has been reduced to a way to destroy some time. A ten minute video doesn't do anything except make ten minutes of your life go away. An 800 word blog post makes.. well, how long does it take you to read 800 words? That's how much time it will destroy. It will not make you a better photographer, it will not even entertain you particularly, it will not inform you. At best it will validate some life choice you made, and tell you that you're special (despite the evident fact that you are not.)

All this empty content still produces money for someone. You're paying for it, either with your wallet or your attention. You're getting nothing in return except maybe a little empty validation, a little tease that one day you might be someone.

At least when you went to the Galapagos with Michael Reichmann you got to see some turtles. It mighta cost you $10,000 a turtle, but at least there were turtles.

Monday, September 11, 2023

AD Coleman on Trump's mug shot

AD does a nice analysis of this photo, of just the sort I would do. A little more partisan than I would have written it, but AD's philosophy on that is perfectly clear and to my eye a perfectly reasonable approach. If he were disingenuous, I wouldn't like it, but he's not.

Read it here.

Really, do. It is well worth your time.

Thursday, September 7, 2023

On Visual Literacy

There is a school of thought, largely among the low-rent photo-academics that I so enjoy making fun of, that visual literacy is a thing, a thing which can be learned, ought to be taught, and so on. They say supremely stupid things like "one can read a photo just like a novel" and so on. This is one of those ideas that feels immediately kind of stupid. It gets a lot of its traction because of this, it's a strange but true idea that lets dummies imagine they have access to secret knowledge.

Let's dig in!

The first thing one might think about, if one asked oneself seriously "what is visual literacy actually" is that perhaps it's just about seeing things. A photo, of the sort one reads with ones visual literacy is generally just a picture of some stuff. Perhaps one could just read the stuff?

I am nearly certain that this is never what is meant. To be honest, I'm not 100% on this since these guys never explain what they actually mean, but I'm pretty sure.

Nope, visual literacy is specifically about the photo. It fits into that narrow gap between just looking at stuff, and just looking at a piece of paper with blotches on it. It's about decoding the photographer's methods and choices. What did the photographer choose to represent here, when, and what techniques did they apply to render the stuff they're photographing?

At this point even a moment's thought reveals that there cannot actually be any secret knowledge here. Suppose the photographer carefully applies Methods to make the subject look heroic, or venal, or whatever. If this doesn't actually come through to the ordinary citizen, if the sensation that the subject is venal or expensive or whatever does not come through to the untrained eye, the photo has failed. This isn't like a novel, where you're assuming that the person holding it can read the language. We don't encode things in a photo using a system of signs that one learns in school.

Yes, there are signs and tropes that get used, but they're culturally ubiquitous. A low angle and dramatic lighting to make the dude look heroic, or threatening, or whatever? Sure. That's totally a thing. It might be a bit of biology, it's definitely a lot of culture, but the point is that the great unwashed masses who didn't go to your stupid MFA program can read it just fine. They read comic books too.

Visual literacy, if it means anything at all, means that one notices and inventories ones own responses to a photo. The advanced course might conceivably teach us how other cultures, other people, might respond, so that we can imagine their responses and inventory those as well (wait, this sounds a lot like Molitor's theory of criticism, huh.) There cannot be anything interesting about our responses, those must be universal. The literacy arises in that we notice them.

The trouble we run in to immediately here is that we have trouble separating our reactions to the photographic methods and tropes from our reactions to the content itself.

As a critic, I don't see much point in separating those. I am interested in the total effect of the photo on me, and on other people. Trying to comb apart the lighting techniques from the content isn't something I am much interested in.

It is, however, of central importance if you're trying to do visual literacy and decode the Language of Photography or whatever. You can't just be reacting to the content, that's not visual literacy that's just looking at stuff. So, the visually literate academic weirdo has to pretend they're reacting to the way the photo is made, rather than just the contents of the frame.

Case in point, Jörg Colberg's more or less unhinged critique of Helmut Newton.

The underlying drama here is that Colberg is a prude, and also believes that Men should not photograph Women, ever, and especially not Nude Women. Which, you know, ok. He's perfectly entitled to his opinions here, and these are not even particularly odd ideas.

You can, however, see him muddling up the content and the method, constantly. Newton's photos are sexist and misogynistic not because it's a dude photographing women with their clothes off, but because somehow something something male gaze. Colberg flatly refuses to admit that his beef is that dudes shouldn't photograph women with no clothes on, and so he wanders endlessly around saying ridiculous things like "In a most obvious fashion, Newton’s world is entirely heterosexual."

Not only is Colberg somehow gleaning the sexuality of a nude woman from the photo, which is itself pretty suspect, but Helmut Newton's photos are famously some of the gayest shit ever! It's all flirting with sexual fetishes. We do not in these enlightened times think of gayness as a fetish, but in Newton's time it absolutely was. The Fetish/Gay/Camp blend was 100% a thing, and Helmut Newton was a master of it, if not the master.

Colberg goes on to argue that Newton's photos are "sexist and misogynistic" because it's obvious that they are and if you dared argue that they weren't, well, your argument would also be "sexist and misogynistic" and therefore wrong. Q.E.D. I looked this up in my Logic 101 textbook, and I think we formally refer to this syllogism as Modus Dumbass.

Anyways, this is pretty much a perfect case study of some dude who earnestly believes in visual literacy and earnestly believes that he has more or less mastered this arcane art, and that he is therefore qualified to offer us a "reading" of Newton's work. He sees himself as diligently decoding the dense thicket of symbols encoded in Newton's photographs, to reveal to us the inner meaning.

I don't even much like Newton, but I don't think there's any inner meaning that you need special training to decode. The magazines who commissioned Newton's work would likely be surprised and upset to learn that special training was necessary to make sense of that work. It is as if The New Yorker commissioned 2500 words on dogs, only to receive a manuscript written in Latin.

No, Newton is pretty much all surface. It's all fetishistic and sexy, in a sort of blunt and dated way, and that makes Colberg extremely uncomfortable.

Is it "sexist and misogynistic" to represent women as powerful but also sexual, and also kind of pervy? Maybe? That seems to me like a cultural judgement that's gonna give you different answers in different times and places. Ultimately, I don't particularly care. I am interested in the total effect of the photo, content and method combined.

There's nothing wrong with noticing and inventorying your reactions to a photograph. I do it as a hobby. The difference, as near as I can tell, between simply looking at a photo with your eyes open and visual literacy is that the latter tries, fruitlessly, to separate content from method, to catalogue in some meaningful the reactions to method separately from content.

Invariably, the reaction to content bleeds in, and the whole effort collapses into a re-iteration of the visually literate nimrod's politics. In the end it's never more complicated than them being mad that someone photographed a naked woman.

It's fine to be mad that someone photographed that, or that the subject exists, or whatever, I don't care. What's dumb is to pretend that you're actually mad at the secret neoliberal coded message that you can't articulate but which is definitely in the photo probably as a punctum or something.