Sunday, December 10, 2017

Crit: Frédérick Carnet, The promise of a better world?

I've written about M. Carnet's work in the past, right here, reviewing his project "The Last First Day" which I liked. But not as much as I like the work I'm looking at right now.

You can examine the promise of a better world? right here, and you ought to. I will reserve my comments to "below the jump" as they say, and remind you to go look at the work before you read my remarks again.

First, two fragments.

Joseph Cornell made boxes. Cornell boxes, to be exact. As far as I know, no other artist has taken a credible swing at this, so it's an art form with, really, a single practitioner. What he did was to arrange objects in an open box. Nothing more. Glue, wire, that sort of thing. Just stuff. The effect is sometimes pretty much nothing, but sometimes it's quite startling. He's really just giving you a structured arrangement of more or less ordinary objects, and, zowie, it creates some sort of intense impression.

Fragment #2. All representational art does this thing in which there is a duality in play between the thing represented, and the representation itself. Photography, with its precise optical tracing of the thing, takes this to a kind of pinnacle. If I want to show you a thing and it is inconvenient to actually pry it loose and carry it to you, I will inevitably take a photograph of the thing. It is the way we do that. "Look at this" we say. Some photographs function purely as a way of looking at something, the photograph itself vanishes or is at any rate irrelevant. Some photographs barely represent anything, and what we're supposed to perceive is the photograph itself. Most fall somewhere in between.

If you haven't yet, go ye and look at M. Carnet's pictures now! Look carefully. These pictures are rather densely connected to one another.

Friday, December 8, 2017


Luckily for my wise and erudite audience, Mike C. has written an actually interesting piece, which if you have not yet read (and why not? Hmm?) you ought to read. It's the sort of thing I aspire to write when I am not consumed with fits of bile, and he makes a most excellent case for collage and related forms that begin with photographs and end up somewhere else.

Since this is very much a Thing (especially if we add in, which Mike doesn't, your basic "heavily photoshopped thing that look like a photograph but isn't any more") it's worth a good think and a spirited defense.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Damn It

The holidays are crushing me, so I have limited time and even less inspiration. About all I can do is get mad at Colberg, sorry. I have a couple of photographic projects in the queue to go look at and think about carefully, but for now it's just more grumpiness about some other blogger.

In Colberg's latest set of reviews he includes a book called Fruit Garden which looks like the usual set of wilfully ugly pictures clumsily pasted up into a thudding, uninteresting, narrative. He reads it as some sort of indictment of the Soviet System (and, gosh, thank god we're finally seeing some serious critique of THAT, eh?).

The way I understand his, um, somewhat disjointed discussion of the book, the phrase "Fruit Garden" is apparently a reference to Ivan Michurin, who was some crazy biologist or something in the USSR with some crazy ideas. Looking around a little you find that Michurin did indeed have a "Fruit Garden" in which he bred all kinds of fruit, and so on. So one naturally assumes that the book title is either a reference to this particular fruit garden, or perhaps even a documentation of it.

The fruit garden, the literal thing, we are led to understand, is one of those instances of the Soviet idea that if you just believe really hard you can make something work (but then, we are given to understand, it doesn't work, so there are coverups and lies, and glowing reports of success from the ruins, and so on). This book apparently starts from there and jumps off to some allegory or whatever about the USSR.

That's a very pretty story, it just happens to be totally wrong.

Michurin and his fruit garden predate the revolution by quite a while, and were roaring successes, even after the revolution. Michurin was a serious, dedicated, and fairly successful scientist. He believed some things about genetics which would, in the fullness of time, be proven wrong but which were by no means peculiar at the time. Michurin's name was essentially besmirched by the Soviet Science Complex, which used Michurin's name and accomplishments to promote what would ultimately be shown to be a completely wrong and crazy view of inheritance and evolution. The relevant name here is Lysenko.

Why does this matter?

Well, it is literally Colberg's job to place this book into context, to explain, to describe. He could have skipped the title entirely. But, having decided to explain the title to us, he is obliged to get it right. What he has done, in fact, is to plunge the title into further mystery. If the (successful) fruit garden is supposed to stand in for the (failed) Soviet philosophy, someone has left out some steps.

Was it Colberg, who apparently skimmed and misread the admittedly poorly written Britannica entry, and then declared himself done? If so, well, fuck him for a lazy asshole and he should get out of academia. While there is in fact a large and cozy place for this sort of shit in the academy, there ought not to be.

Was it the SPUTNIK guys who screwed it up? If so, Colberg should either ignore the title, or explain that they botched it. Since he did not, see above.

Is Michurin's garden even the actual referent here? The book talks about Stalin's personal garden, in the bits we're allowed to look at in the store. Where did Colberg come up with Michurin? One assumes that Ivan appears in the book, because otherwise Colberg (who has clearly never heard of the guy) wouldn't know to refer to him, right?

What the hell is even going on here?

We'll never know, because Colberg is sloppy and lazy. My parents, who were actual scholars, would not have recommended this man for tenure.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Male Gaze! Female Gaze!

This is going to be on the "rambling blather" end of things, not my usual masterfully tight, brilliantly argued, essays. Buckle up and drink a couple espressos to stay awake.

Not that I want to be in the business of griping about Colberg all the time, but one of my most excellent commenters reminded me about an aside in Colberg's latest that's worth pondering a bit. The relevant section is this:

From what I can tell, the idea of the female gaze is becoming more and more discussed — a much needed development, given how dominant the male gaze has been in the history of photography (and elsewhere). If I were asked on the spot to describe the female gaze I would probably say that it’s a gaze that is content with how much can be revealed by not revealing it all — unlike the male gaze that just wants it all (and that, where it uses shadows or forms, tends to be always a bit too sure of itself). The female gaze’s default never is to sexualize. Instead, it is celebratory in a way that involves the artist, the subject, and the viewer — again, unlike the male’s, whose default is predatory and whose main mode of work treats its subject as something not equal, something only good to be ogled at. That’s why the dominance of the male gaze in contemporary societies is so toxic: it excludes, and it dominates (one could argue that the neofascism that is now threatening to destroy so many Western democracies — Trump, Orban, Kaczynski, et al. – is a political manifestation of the male gaze).

This is, to an extent, merely an academician kow-towing to current trends and trotting out some vague "women are great" twaddle. But it's still worth a looksee, I think, because there are some real things here.

Male gaze as I understand it (15 minutes on wikipedia) comes from feminist criticism of cinema. It's ferociously complicated in the details and draws heavily on Freud who is completely discredited except in fields where he's still useful. But it's still, more or less obviously, a real thing. The point is that society has long prescribed pretty specific roles for men and women, pretty specific official narratives for their roles. Our cultural artifacts (movies, novels, photographs) are both driven by those social norms, and also prop them up, in a feedback loop.

The idea of male gaze can, I think, be boiled down to the ways in which these gendered social roles are revealed and supported. Women are objectified. Men get all the good tough lines, the harsh lighting, the fisticuffs. Women get soft lighting, they're sexualized, they get submissive lines, and in the end the guy gets the girl, not the other way around. The language around male gaze theory is a little rough, but it's obviously talking about a real thing.

Male gaze is associated with a stack of tropes. Hard light light on men, soft on women. Men are tough, women are soft. The camera lingers on the female body. Etc and so forth. These tropes are not the thing, any more than than hammer is the house, but they do get lumped together, and this is one of the places Colberg gets into trouble. When he gets into this business about shadows and forms, he's really out to lunch. He needs to go look at some of the pictorialists again.

Female gaze is defined in opposition to male gaze and therefore has some problems. The latter is, roughly, just a description of how things are, or at any rate were up until pretty recently. What's the opposite of gravity? Regardless, you can at least get some idea of what ideas might be present in female gaze, things like strong female roles, women getting to be in charge, men being lit with soft light and objectified, that sort of thing. There's a bunch of stuff you can do and lump under female gaze if you like, and I am on the record as being in favor of doing just that.

Colberg illustrates for us some of the trouble one has getting hold of female gaze saying, for instance, "The female gaze’s default never is to sexualize" which is actually a meaningless statement. Does it say "the female gaze does not sexualize?" No it does not, thank goodness, because that would be idiotic. No, it says that the default isn't to sexualize. What this means in real terms is that sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't. Now, male gaze (by definition) sexualizes. If it's not sexualizing, then it's not male gaze, it's just movie footage of something else. Does that make it female gaze? Who knows? Not me! Not Jörg!

The big area where Colberg runs in to trouble is, I think, that he's conflating authorship with gaze. Women are perfectly capable of producing work that falls under male gaze and Colberg himself just gave us some samples. The photo of Donald and Melania Trump:

Also the entire output of Leni Riefenstahl, to replay Colberg's unfortunate invocation of the name.

No doubt you could find some theorists who would argue that women are literally incapable of male gaze because they're women or whatever, but that is one of those things that is obviously just politics. It's only true if you are willing to let male gaze disintegrate into a meaningless set of mouth sounds. Annie Leibovitz obviously made at least one photograph that is virtually a prototype for the idea. Women are more prone even than men to decide that a good and worthwhile project is to photograph 100 (or 1000 or what the hell go big 10,000) women naked. To empower them, dontcha know.

It's very attractive to say that male gaze is a thing because it's just a bunch of old white guys in charge of making the movies and stuff. It's not true, though. These things are embedded in our society and, to a degree, it doesn't matter who's making the movies. Authorship no doubt helps, but it doesn't reverse things automatically.

Make gaze isn't even automatically bad. It's not as if nobody should ever portray a strong man or a sexualized woman. The problem is that we tend to not portray much else. When you're writing a film script, it's altogether too easy to just start ripping off "Casablanca" and suddenly you've got the well developed character Cliff drinking heavily and telling Robert to "play it" while he remembers his time in New Orleans with the pliant, beautiful, but not very interesting Amelia. If my daughters never saw any other movies, they'd get some pretty weird ideas that I don't want them to have. But they can watch "Casablanca" as far as I am concerned, because they watch and read all kinds of other stuff. Like LEGO DC Super Hero Girls.

So, gaze is neither the box of tropes that is often used to execute it, nor is it the authorship. It is the social construct, the manifestation of the construct in our art, our cultural artifacts, and the relationship between those artifacts and the society.

As for authorship. I definitely like female photographers more than male photographers. Partly this is because men are more prone to being nerdly. I think when you're looking at some dude's pictures, you are more likely to find that he wasted some of his finite resources on corner-to-corner sharpness and whatnot, and therefore had less energy to expend on getting the ideas right, the feel of the thing right, and so on.

It would be tempting, when looking for instance as a razor-sharp landscape, to make some noises about male obsession of possessing it all, in the mode of Colberg. To say that the sharpness is a manifestation of the probing, nay the LITERAL PENETRATION of the male INTO the now EROTICIZED landscape. This would be a bunch of shit, and would detract from the very real idea and the real problems wrapped up with the idea male gaze. What we're looking at is that men are more likely to be nerds, and Ansel told them to make it all sharp. They started fussing with their camera and forgot that the cussed scene actually feels kind of soft, windswept.

I genuinely do believe that women make photographs that look different. It's subtle, unreliable. I think it would be ferociously difficult to actually design a properly blinded test to check if it's even true. Can I pick out photographs made by women better than random? Maybe! Maybe not! How would you design a test to check?

Maybe I don't even like photographs made by women better. Maybe I can't identify them. Maybe I just happen to like a handful of photographers who happen to be women, and the rest can go hang. Don't know, and I don't think it matters much.

Thursday, November 23, 2017


It's our weird holiday today in the USA, as every single other person in the USA has already reported on social media.

Or maybe you're the weird one, for NOT having the holiday, eh? EH?

Anyways, I am thankful for many things, among them my erudite and thoughtful readers, and also the vast ocean that protects me from most of them.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Noble Snapshot

I like snapshots, I think they're a valuable artifact and just plain fun to look at. I think you can probably do really great things with snapshots.

What I don't like is the trend to pretend that they're something they're not, the Noble Snapshot. You needn't look far to find pompously promoted Art Books full of these things. I talked about one not too long ago.

What I mean by "snapshot" here is the photograph that pays little to no attention to the formal details. Foreground and background happily run together. The thing might be a bit tilted for no particular reason. One chap is mid-blink. Whatever. The content is probably interesting only to the people in the picture, except at second-order, at a little remove. I might love it for its simple charm, for its obvious importance to the girl in the picture, for the beautifully incomprehensible personal moment it so clumsily portrays.

Most snapshots I probably won't like much, because there's nothing much there. But still, you know, someone went to the trouble for some reason. Like a child's painting, even blurriest ham-fisted photo of the fridge has something going for it.

What these things are not, though, is Noble.

When you stick them in a heavy book, with a fatuous essay, you're trying to make them into something they are not. The result looks like a mule at a Lippizaner Stallions show. Mules are great, they even have their own beauty if you squint a little. But they're not the Royal Lippizaners, and they would simply look stupid. You do nobody any favors by putting the mule into the show.

Here is a case in point. Colberg has recently reviewed a book by a friend of his. A woman who, in the early 1980s, used a view camera to capture the quotidian moments around her in a snapshot aesthetic. Here's the blurb from the publisher:

When Mary Frey began photographing family, friends and strangers in her immediate environment in 1979, she was in a state of transition. Studies finished, first teaching assignment, pregnant - responsibilities, duties, worries - and the need to look for meaning in everyday life. After a childhood in the sense of an imminent nuclear catastrophe, in an America where lifestyle magazines and television give directions how the BRAVE NEW WORLD should look and function.

Mary Frey has made strange pictures. Technically perfect, between snapshot and enactment, intimacy and distance. Charged banalities with children, adolescents and adults, middle class, USA, 35 years ago. No reportage, a psychogram. Stockphotos that no magazine would have printed, no agency would have used for a campaign. Weird.

And let me also quote from her statement about what I think is the same project (her web site is broken, so I cannot be certain, but the timeline and the subject matter are right):

This project grew out of my fascination with the snapshot as a vessel for and shaper of memory and my abiding interest in the straight photograph as a seemingly truthful and precise record of an event. The work began with a systematic documentation of daily routines (cooking, eating, dressing, etc.). I sought out particularly banal situations and posed my subjects to appear as if they were truly engaged in their activities. The pictures, which have a quasi-documentary look about them, resemble a kind of tableau-vivant. The tools I chose to use--a large format camera, black and white film and diffuse flashbulb lighting--further enhance the stylized look of these images. At once, this body of work attempts to question the nature of photographic truth while using the iconography of middle class customs to comment on societal values and systems.

These remarks make explicit that this is a photography project about photography, it's Art about Art which I have noted is inherently tedious and uninteresting.

And now, finally, let us look at one of these things:

Frey's description makes it clear that this is a fake snapshot. A staged thing, intended to look like a snapshot, intended to capture a quotidian moment. Looking at it confirms this more or less instantly. It is simultaneously mannered in a few details, and also willfully ugly, willfully clumsy.

It's a good sample of a quotidian moment. As a father of daughters I can hardly think of a more typical scene. This is one of those scenes that is simply available, and can usefully be photographed for a project of quotidian family moments.

In fact, look at this:

This is exactly the same sort of thing. It is a staged snapshot, a recreation of a commonly occurring event in Sally Mann's family. In fact, one can imagine that Sally saw the license plate, and spent days or weeks marching her little girls out to stand next to it over and over until she got what she wanted. But, it is still presented under the aegis of a "kind of like a snapshot, a normal moment in a normal life."

The two pictures were shot within a few years of one another, there is no question of whether one copies the other -- of course no such thing is true. This is a common, available, scene.

What is true, however, is that the team putting together Mary Frey's book could not possibly have been unaware of Sally Mann's book, and it's thoroughly unlikely that they did not know "Gorjus." The fact that they selected this picture from Frey's archives and not another suggests a deliberate quote.

But they are wildly different photographs. Mann's is anything but a snapshot, it is a highly structured photograph of a (staged) ordinary moment. Frey's is equally staged, the subject matter is identical, but the aesthetic is completely different, it is willfully ugly. Now, Mary Frey is not being disingenuous or incompetent here, this is precisely what she has set out to do. My point boils down to, in the end, that I don't like it. I do, however, have reasons for not liking it.

Let's see what Sally Mann has to say about the pictures among which we find "Gorjus":

When the good pictures come, we hope they tell truths, but truths "told slant," just as Emily Dickinson commanded. We are spinning a story of what it is to grow up. It is a complicated story and sometimes we try to take on the grand themes: anger, love, death, sensuality, and beauty. But we tell it without fear and without shame.

So we have Frey, with her willfully ugly pictures. The blurbs, the artist's statement, all talk about the process, the weirdness of the pictures, the snapshotiness, the playing with the very idea of photograph or whatever. And then we have Mann with her extremely beautiful picture of the same subject, and she talks not about how great her process is, but about the ideas and themes that are embodied in the pictures.

We cannot escape it. The text wrapped around the ugly pictures, the willfully shoddy ones, is trying to make them sound important. The text wrapped around the beautiful pictures barely mentions the pictures themselves.

The Lippizaner Stallions don't need some huckster shouting about their grace, their beauty, their power. It's the broke-down mules and the crippled ponies that need someone to shout their praises to the masses, at least if they're being sold as graceful stallions. Mary Frey's book, despite the clumsily coy marketing, is not the second coming of Immediate Family. It is at best a completely different book and, realistically, it's probably not very good. No doubt the team behind it would bridle at the suggestion that it's being sold in relation to Mann's work, but only an idiot would deny the connections, the quotations, and so on.

This is not a trend I enjoy. I dislike being sold broken-down mules as Lippizaners, and I can jolly well tell the difference. I may be a rube, but I am not an idiot.

I like pigs just fine. Pigs are wonderful, and a staged snapshot, or even a book of them, might be lovely. But please, don't put lipstick all over the pig.

It makes you look stupid, and it annoys the pig.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Why does Photography Need Theory?

After chopping up the remarkably fatuous Daniel C. Blight a bit the other day over his piece on this, I thought I'd take a whack at it myself. As an aside, I am apparently not the only person who has noted what an idiot Blight it, but he's got the academic word-wooze down pat, so he places pieces in the usual pseudo-academic "web magazines" pretty effectively.

Anyways, to the question in the title. The simple answer is "It does not." It's pretty obvious that photography as a thing, as a cultural phenomenon, as a method of documentary, as an art, could proceed just fine without some bunch of eggheads like Andrew or Blight or Colberg droning on. You point the lens, you press the button, yo.

You need not be an architect to build a house, I happen to know this for a fact. I've seen it done!

But, when you build a house, you are nonetheless working from a pragmatic distillation of architecture. There are things that work, and things that don't. The roof has to go on top if you expect to keep the rain out. There should be places to pee, to cook, to sleep, and they should be separate.

And there are other details, less obvious, but which one could discover by feel, perhaps. Rooms should have window light from at least two sides whenever possible. It is, apparently, a fact that if you have a building in which some rooms have window light from less than two sides, and other rooms with window light from two or more sides, people will avoid the former and spend time in the latter. I mean, unless the latter are perpetually filled with poison gas or something.

This is something one can deduce by living in some houses. This is the kind of thing one can do by instinct, drawing a design that simply has this feature without ever actually thinking about it. You'd have to be a bit gifted, but it could certainly happen.

So, you can do it. Photography can exist, and even develop, by an emergent process based on instinct. People invent new ideas, perhaps by accident, others copy them without much analysis, and you can end up with a sophisticated, broad, creative art form without anyone bringing up the word "dialectic" once.

So what's theory for?

I think it's as much for understanding what you've got as it is for anything else. I, at any rate, treat it mostly as struggling to understand how photographs function. By "function" I mean everything from "how one person looking at one picture reacts" to "how does photography as a whole interact with society as a whole" and everything in between.

You could argue, I guess, that there's also a bunch of theory to be spun around the photographer. Their influences, their philosophy, and so on. And you might be right? It's certainly another topic I am interested in, but I think we already have a name for that: Art History. Perhaps it's a cheat, but I'm going to set it aside.

What I have named as theory is worthwhile, I think, just because it's interesting. It might not be interesting to you, and that's OK. Being interesting is sufficient to be worth studying. But, perhaps there's a little more. Does it inform my, as the kids say, "practice"? I dunno, maybe.

I think it's a more efficient path to communicating. If you ever show a picture to another human or even imagine doing so, you are to some extent invested in what people make of your pictures. Theory isn't anything more complicated than trying to understand, a priori how that might go. On the one hand, what it actually is is simple, but on the other hand how to unscramble the stuff is more or less infinitely complicated. People and society are pretty much complicated all the way down, and how someone reacts to your picture is dependent on all of it, at least slightly.

Things that I think I have derived from my understanding of theory, that are literally in my mind when I press the button:

Shoot what you truly feel deeply about, in a way that exhibits that deep feeling, and the viewers will see it. Maybe.

Propaganda is a real thing, what is the impression I am trying to create here? What idea am I selling?

You can absolutely feel your way through both of these without a whit of theory, but for me, it works to have thought about the ten steps past what I actually need, in order to really nail down the bits I do need.