Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Anti-Portrait

What's a portrait?

Well, I think it's a picture that seems to reveal something specific the interior life of the subject. Something of character, something of their emotional nature, whatever. Something more than this guy is a carpenter, see, he's holding a hammer. A good one does, anyone. As usual, I say "seems to" because I've never worked out if they actually do, or if they just make me think they do through some sleight of hand.

An anti-portrait, of course, does the opposite.

I come at this from thinking about Robert Frank's book, The Americans, when juxtaposed with Caleb Stein's pictures which I talked about a while back. Whether Stein knows it or not, he's influenced by Frank. It occurred to me that what Stein has done is made a bunch of pictures in the style of Frank, but which do not cohere into a whole the way Frank's does.

This led to down the mental path to the way Frank's book reveals. He went on a pretty specific mission to find the soul of America, and he came back with one. It's by no means a complete picture of America, but it is a coherent essay. It is one of America's many souls, if you will.

Now, one could set Stein's work up as an anti-Frank, but that's unfair, really. It's not that his pictures are fated to never cohere, it's more that his project is woefully incomplete. Whether it will ever go anywhere (no, of course it won't) is unknown and a different essay. Still, the idea lingers. Looking specifically at Stein's portraits, which are related to Bruce Gilden's idea of a portrait, the clearer idea of an anti-portrait begins to emerge.

When Stein photographs someone, he's clearly less offensive than Gilden. His subjects are warmed up toward him, but they are simply mugging, putting on their camera face. By isolating them from their background, Stein more often than not removes any useful context, so all we are left is the reality of the person's physiognomy. This is roughly what Gilden does, except his subjects are usually one step beyond and actually annoyed with Gilden, closed rather than mugging. Either way, nothing of that person's interior even seems to appear.

Our powerful face-reading ability recognizes these people more or less instantly as revealing nothing, of giving nothing away.

These are anti-portraits.

This doesn't make them evil just somehow less interesting. All of fashion is arguably anti-portraits, we're not supposed to be thinking about the inner life of the model. Just look at the clothes, ok?

Stein and Gilden could, and might, argue that the entire point is to focus on the details of physiognomy, to confront us with the person's skin and makeup, or whatever. Is that good or bad? I don't know, but I think it's a lot less interesting. We are, after all, social animals.

The closed face is uninteresting, or at best alarming. In a photo, it's almost never even alarming.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Blurb Trade Books

I've done a fair number of "trade books" on blurb, with mainly black and white photography. They're cheap as anything. I have successfully learned two (2) things.

The first is to be aware that pictures (especially masses of black) will tend to show through, especially with the bargain paper. Be a little cognizant of that, and consider your layouts appropriately.

The second is that the blacks are weak and it can be a bit disappointing if you do black and white with large masses of blacks.. It's not like they're grey or anything, but they're weak. So, first of all, make sure you have beefy blacks. If you "crush the blacks" as they say, starting from slightly open and airy looking darker tones, you're going to get a greyish mist instead of a photograph.

In order to get a picture that reads more or less normally, I push the very darkest tones down, and lift the darker greys (the ones right above the darkest ones) up a little to shove some contrast down into the darker areas, and then I tack everything else in place. This is all in a curves adjustment tool of your choice, and it looks a bit like this:



The result will look terrible on screen, with plugged up shadows and whatnot. Don't you worry, those are gonna open right back up. The result reads pretty well to me in the final print. The blacks, while weak, still read OK. There's nothing to be done about the narrow tonal range available, but you can fool the eye as it were, to a degree.

If you print "straight" you will wind up with a bit of that "crushed blacks" look, with the slightly "open" darkest tones. Which might be what you're looking for. If you're a weirdo.

Why "crushed" blacks means "lightened" I do not know, but there it is.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Inspiration!

Somehow, whenever a photographer goes asking for "how to get inspired", or when a photographer offers up advice for inspiration, the answer is always either a piece of gear, a technical method, or a gimmick. Are you uninspired? I know how you feel.



But I know what you ought to do, to get inspired!! I DO! Try macro photography!



Or grab a wide-angle lens!



Have you thought about trying a graduated neutral density filter?!! It's opens up a whole new way to see!



Try a Lee Big Stopper ND filter for super long exposures!



Buy a drone, get inspired by how things look FROM ABOVE!



Use a wide angle macro lens and a 10 stop ND filter ON a drone! Use a drone with a wide angle macro lens to photograph ten things within ten feet of you in the next ten seconds! Because the way to get inspired is to buy more stuff!!!!!

Ahem. Sorry.

I don't know why this is the case, it has something to do with the ways camera owners view photography. There's a strong tendency to seek technical solutions to creative problems, and there always has been. If you can't solve it by buying a widget, perhaps you can solve it with a step-by-step recipe, and if that doesn't work surely a widget AND a recipe will work!

The trouble is that when you're feeling uninspired what you're lacking is an idea.

A widget or a method is not a guaranteed failure here, to be sure. Sometimes a fresh view through a new lens really will produce an idea. Not, however, all that often.

Inspiration can be a lot cheaper. Try asking yourselves these questions:

What is the best thing in the world? What is the worst? What is the silliest? What do I believe in? What in this world is most precious to me? If I could change one thing in this world, what would it be?

Really, any Big Questions. You can probably make up another 50 of your own. When you've worked out something that matters to you, some story you want to tell, then work how to to take a picture of that.

And then take that picture.



Monday, November 13, 2017

Capitalist Realism!

Jörg Colberg surprised me today. He hinted that he had queued up a piece on Annie Leibovitz and Gregory Crewdson, and I assumed it was going to be a tedious snorefest of how much they both suck.

But it's not.

I wouldn't say it's Colberg at his very best but at least he's thinking biggish thoughts again.

What struck me, though, was that after talking about how Annie portrays all these rich assholes as noble heros, in the Riefenstahl mode, he singles out this picture:



Which certainly deploys the relevant tropes. However, it enobles nobody. I find it remarkably subversive. It's the sort of picture that pretty much only Donald Trump would think flatters Donald Trump. It's Crewdsonesque in its suggestion of the imploding relationship. And, mostly, it's pretty much just this picture:



Annie doesn't like Trump one goddamned bit, and she's not afraid to show it to anyone who's willing to look.

Anyways. Jörg is engaged here in the trendy business of pointing out that Art works as propaganda, and then bitching about how the opposing team is doing a better job of it than his team. That's very sad, but Jörg and his crew are complicit.

They bitch about and sneer at Annie and Gregory, because successful populist Art sucks. They promote tedious "my-sad-project" Art, they promote "OMG dictators are terrible" projects. They get behind exhibitions that boil down to "Trump is a doodoohead." And so on.

What they, the leftist anti-neoliberal Art community are failing to do is find any kind of a goddamned voice of their own. You know what works? Propaganda, which is an unkind way of saying "messaging that is clear, accessible, and persuasive" which of course they cannot get behind because they're too precious. What is maddening is that they can see it working for the other side, but refuse to take up the same tools themselves.

Instead they bury themselves in self-reference, post-modern "symbols can only refer to other symbols dontchaknow" blather, dense incomprehensible work about nothing, and self-indulgent displays of childish temper.

Stop bitching about how Annie makes rich people look good, find an alternative narrative, and start pushing the shit out of it using Annie's toolbox. And while you're at it, tone down the sneering at Annie, because she's already doing just that.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Malian Photography, Revisited

The reader with the long memory may recall my remarks on the Archive of Malian Photography. I expressed some disappointment with it, and I continue to be disappointed. It strikes me as, at the very best, a cultural artifact of very little depth.

Turns out there's more going on here!

One of the photographers in the archive is actually a well known guy, a sort of recently discovered (20 years ago or so) wunderkind of Africa. Also, somewhat more recently deceased. As usual, the story is that he labored in obscurity until white guy discovered his vast archive of important work, but the reality is that he was at any rate well known in Mali, and quite possibly known in Europe. It was by the efforts, perhaps, of the white marketing guy, that his previously known work become Important. I don't know where this guy's true story fits, but probably somewhere between those two stories.

So, the guy is Malick Sidibé, and there was a retrospective held in France recently, reviewed in the Tedious Grey Lady. These are much more visually interesting pictures and, perhaps, a somewhat deeper artifact than the Archive cited above has.

The white guy who discovered Sidibé is André Magnin, an independent curator who was actually looking for someone else in Mali. Magnin, to some extent or another, did or does represent the Contemporary African Art Center (CAAC), a project funded by Jean Pigozzi, who is another white guy who happens to have a hell of a lot of money. What exactly the relationships between Magnin, CAAC, and Pigozzi are is a little murky, probably deliberately. Things like CAAC are usually in part a tax dodge anyways.

Ok, so, digging further we find that CAAC/Magnin hold a bunch of Sidibé's negatives, that MSU (where the Archive above lives) appears to be somewhat pissy about this, not least because Magnin clearly has the good ones and the Archive has the shitty ones. If you poke around the Archive a bit, you find some material about how they are very careful that negatives never leave Mali, always remain in the hands of the right people etc, because there's been a lot of LOOTING and STUFF which they're vague about. Another MSU professor mentioned on twitter, without sources, that Magnin has attempted (or is now attempting) to buy the copyrights from Sidibé's family.

In case you were wondering, the princpals at the Archive in the USA are both white. The guy who accused Magnin of trying to buy copyrights? Yup. White guy.

Me? Yes, also a white guy. It's like some kinda fuckin' pattern here.

So, what we have here is a set of pictures, which Magnin essentially made valuable through the marketing efforts. There is now money and prestige on the line, and a Whole Bunch of White People are set to squabble over who gets it.

What seems to have occurred is that Sidibé took a bunch of photos of Malians in nightclubs and at parties in the 1950s and 1960s. They're pretty good pictures, fun to look at, interesting because of context. Had they been shot in Harlem they would have been a minor curiosity. Since they were shot in Africa, they're much more interesting to Euros and Americans. People like me. Me, in particular. They do tell us something that we did not know, but which many people in Africa (not least the Malians) knew then: namely that African youth look and act a lot like Euro and American youth given the chance.

There is a distressing subtext here, about which we can do nothing. It is possible to read these pictures thus: Look at the Africans, why, they're almost like us, what a surprise! Well, they were, until of course the wheels fell off and they re-descended back into their natural state of savagery and poverty, because, Africa.

There is, however, no doubt that Magnin was instrumental in creating the value in these pictures. Sidibé took them, certainly. I will speculate that across Africa over the last 75 years, many photographers have built many such archives. It's just the stuff that was going on, that Sidibé could shoot for money. Africa, obviously, has had lots of photographers and I dare say many of them made some money taking pictures along the way. No Magnin, no value. Obviously, no Sidibé, no value either. Photographs in general, and these photographs perhaps a little more, are valuable because of what they depict (Sidibé) combined with how and where and to whom they are presented (Magnin).

Several questions are raised here.

The first is who is deserving of reward here. These pictures are not even very interesting in Africa, any more than wheat is particularly valuable in Saskatchewan. Are Magnin and CAAC nonetheless simple white exploiters who should justly be cut out of the loop? Should the MSU Archive be placed into the loop, and if so, on what grounds? They're just a bunch of white exploiters with different protocols, really. If Magnin hadn't "discovered" Sidibé they'd be furiously protecting some masks or something from exploiters instead. The Archive of Malian Photography appears to be a grant-funded land grab. They would like to acquire the Sidibé archive in toto and they are hoping to discover more of the same. Surely they intend to respect the photographers, and so forth, but they would also like to make some substantial career hay here as well.

The second is an older and larger question. Are artifacts of a culture better left more or less in situ or carried off to carefully managed archives? The current "correct" answer is that, obviously, the you should send the Elgin Marbles back to Greece. This is the MSU Archive's program, they're restoring negatives in-country, scanning them, carefully restricting access to high resolution scans, and returning the negatives to the copyright holders. Or, well, to someone in country. Someone who seems to be a good choice to represent the copyright holders. Recall that as far as I can tell, these negatives are completely uninteresting even to us, I cannot imagine they're much above the level of trash in-country. A humongous pile of bog standard studio mugshots of people from 65 years ago? Huh? Why would anyone even keep that?

Magnin's program was to bring the negatives to Europe, he acquired the ones that were, once imported, valuable. Did he compensate Sidibé appropriately? Is he compensating the heirs who now hold the relevant copyrights approprately? Unknown, and let's be honest, probably quite secret.

Not to throw shade at the Africans, but these are objects that have very little value in situ. Are these negatives going to be around in 50 years? If we assume that they even ought to be around 50 years hence, it is not obvious to me that Sidibé's family will ensure that's the case. This is something that is nearly impossible to determine without going to Mali. We can be assured that the MSU Archive will certainly assert for us that they're doing the right thing. Their assurance plus a couple bucks will get you a cup of coffee.

The whole thing is a fascinating study of, well, of something. It is certainly a clusterfuck, it is certainly murky, and it has a lot to tell us about how Art gets its value. It makes the Vivian Maier situation, which it resembles in several ways, look positively boring!

Coda

I admit I take a certain delight in imagining the MSU Archive's story. Most likely they came in to possession of these pieces of knowledge: That Sidibé was a photographer of note, that Magnin had acquired many of his negatives, and that many other negatives remained in Mali, and finally that these negatives could be made available to more white people under, well, under some circumstances or another.

Then, one imagines, that they got a grant to save Sidibé's work, at least some of it, from the predations of Euro Neocolonialist Powers (Magnin/Pigozzi/CAAC). Money in hand, they started to look for more awesome stuff. Days of sifting through negatives. O.M.G. this is all shit. It's just an endless parade of young people standing in front of shabby backdrops in a simple studio. Magnin has gotten all of it. The fucking tomb is empty. GOD DAMN YOU HOWARD CARTER!!!!!

Then, well, fuck. So they start digitizing what they've got, because, what the hell else are they gonna go? They have this fucking grant. Dreams of The Endowed Chair Of Pan-African Studies At Oxford turn to shit in their hands. Welp, that's how it is in the rough and tumble world of academia, eh?

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Crit: Yagazie Emezi

I'm trolling around on Women Photograph for work I haven't seen that's worth a mention.

Yagazie Emezi appears there, and I went to her web site, which is right here. Basically she only takes a half a dozen different pictures, they're fashion inspired portrait-things, but she does them competently. This isn't high concept fashion, this is people standing against a wall, posing, in clothes, hair, and makeup.

What makes it interesting is that it's African, self-concsiously so. This woman has a limited technical palette (well, for all I know she's got vast and incredible powers with the camera, but here she's only using a few simple tropes) which she is using to explore various and sundry ideas. She shows me things that are new to me, that enlarge me, and she shows them to me in a way I can understand. The fact that the photographs are stylistically familiar, the poses, and to some extent the clothes, gives me a portal to access this stuff. These are modern women, living in the same world I inhabit.

On an approach to beauty in Liberia, in which aesthetics are driven not by "correctly" combining fashion elements to please others, but in which you simply choose individual colors and clothes that you like:

You’re not putting on pink because it matches, but because you like it, so you’re going to put it on you



Taken by itself, it's not even that interesting. Taken with the rest of the pictures in "The Beauties of West Point" and with the text that accompanies that project, it snaps in to focus and reveals itself as a cultural facet, new to me.

On body image in Liberia, we get little snippets of interview with young women, and then a picture:

Royda, 30: "I am a 5'1" and a half, curvy, thicker woman, and when I add five pounds, it may look like 10. In African culture, as soon as you gain a little weight, people tend to say, 'Oh, you're getting fat,' which they think is a compliment. You're getting healthier. But it becomes a subconscious thing for me that I'm gaining weight.



Again, nothing particularly interesting. A competent boyfriend shot, maybe. But taken against the text, and against the text and pictures of other young women of various sizes and shapes (all shot in the same place and, roughly, the same way), I learn a little something of "Body Image in Liberia" and how it is different from in the USA.

Interestingly, it strikes me that western ideas of body image are getting mixed in. There's a curious duality between a skinny ideal, which I identify as western, and a no-skinny ideal, which I adentify as Africa.

Something a little more "traditional western media views Africa" appears in the project "Process of re-learning our Bodies" in that we see Africans with scars, sometimes pretty severe. She talks a little about body image in Africa, but does not do a particularly good job of, I think, of telling us anything interesting. There's something vague about African attitudes toward damaged bodies? But the pictures are interesting, in their own way, because she's continuing to use the simple fashion tropes.



I feel like there's something going on here, something which would reveal something interesting to me if only I had a better handle to grasp.

Anyways. Yagazie Emezi. There's more work on her web site. I think it hangs together, if only because she uses that very small visual vocabulary, and I think she's got some interesting things to say. Also, cheerful Africans who are not posing in Traditional Poses for some western dork with a camera, and that's all to the good, right?

Friday, November 10, 2017

Caleb Stein: Man of Mystery

Recently on PetaPixel we have seen a young photographer name of Caleb Stein, an "emerging" photographer as they say, featured with a bunch of pictures. This sort of thing:





which is instantly recognizable as "kid with a camera documents poverty gonna change the world" and which, upon further inspection, turns out to be exactly what it appears to be. There are all the usual tropes. This kid thinks he's Diane Arbus, but has a handful of other tropes he's picked up here or there that he churns out. So what, it's just PetaPixel. He's got a web site of sorts, and there's some other pictures on it, none of which struck me as much better. It's the homeless-people project that's getting traction, though.

What's interesting about this kid is that he's "published" in at least three magazines besides PetaPixel: Huck, Burn, and Trip. At least two of those have print editions, as well as the web site, although who knows if Caleb's work will get printed. I eagerly await his publication in more four letter magazines, perhaps FUCK, tUrn, and pOOp. Caleb has also been nominated, shortlisted, and runnered up in various competitions.

It is inconceivable to me that anyone publishing this photo essay does not instantly recognize it as the uninteresting lightweight fluff that it is. Which begs the question of why they'd publish it, eh?

In addition, he's interned at Christie's and currently interns for Bruce Gilden (collective "ugh" now, all togather!)

All this on the basis of, basically, nothing. The internet is utterly festooned with this sort of thing. This lad has trotted out to the section of Poughkeepsie where the junkies and homeless hang out, he's persuaded a handful of them to pose for him. Then he wraps this up in a little turgid prose about Poughkeepsie's poverty level (I live in a town that's poorer, and it looks nothing like this, although the homeless people look just like that). There's no structure, this is just a collection of "the best ones" in the sense of Likes, one assumes.

These pictures have been done so many times that they're just symbols, standing in for the photographer's politics. They don't even, in any meaningful way, connect us to poverty, to homelessness, to any sort of social problem any more. They tell us, in short and simple strokes, what kind of photographer we're looking at.

He's pretending that he's documenting Poughkeepsie's poverty, but he's not. He's documenting, mostly, a very small handful of addicts and people he thought looked weird enough to be worth his time. The 19% of Poughkeepsie that lives below the poverty line look, almost universally, like regular people, perhaps a little shabbier, in cheaper clothes. More tired looking. A little hunted.

Caleb's got some bog standard "street" shots, there are 10s of thousands of similar "projects" out there on the web, some better, some worse, mostly just about the same. He's parleying this into a career! Good for him, but how on earth does that work?

I smell a powerful mentor, money, or both.