Sunday, August 20, 2017

Shooting Scripts

Lewis Bush recently asked the world if anyone still used shooting scripts, which I kind of do, and it raised in my mind what I considered an interesting philosophical point.

Set aside the entire universe of pictures that are obviously constructed: still lifes, much studio work, and so on.

Contemporary thinking, I think, suggests that the photographer should first go out and photograph, in order to learn what is there. One might think up a project "The Oil Industry in South America" based on some notions and some research, but then one sets those notions aside and goes to learn what is truly there, with the camera. A great number of photographs are taken, and the artist returns home. Then the truth, or a truth, or the story, is gleaned out of the photographs and distilled into a show, or a book, or a portfolio of some sort.

We see this reflected here and there. Most recently I saw it in Colberg's book on Photobooks, in which he proposes that the normal path, the correct path, is to start with a completed project and then to go to work on the book. Shoot first, build the narrative, the project later.

The shooting script, at least in its full form, suggests that the photographer is approaching the work of taking the pictures with preconceived ideas, with the story already in place. Roy Stryker supplied his FSA photographers with shooting scripts, because he did have a story in mind. He probably thought it was a true story, but he was a propagandist, and there is no doubt that his scripts sometimes led his photographers to, well, less true stories. At best, other stories that might have been told were not told, at worst stories were simply fabricated from parts.

My life constrains me. I am the primary caregiver, as the kids say these days, to two small children. I cart them to and from school, and I cook, I clean, I pack lunches, I walk the dog, and so forth. I don't have time to go out and discover the truth with the camera. I don't have time to take 10,000 frames of something or other, and then sift that down to the 37 pictures that encapsulate The Truth about the something or other. Wish I could. Can't.

Shooting scripts make the photographer vastly more efficient. I needn't hunt around trying to discover what I am trying to say, I already know. I've spent a lot of time observing as I go about the minutiae of my life, I have spent a lot of time thinking as I wash dishes and whatnot. As a consequence, I have a clear idea of what I want to say, sometimes before I take a single picture. Sometimes I fool about taking some random snaps until something occurs to me, but I have a clear notion in mind before the real work starts.

Whatever it is that I am doing, whether I am telling lies, suppressing stories, or telling some kind of truth; whatever the nature of the thing I am saying is, I am not discovering it with the camera. I am discovering my work through observation and thinking.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Orientalism, Revolution, And All That

I am reading Edward Said's book Orientalism and finding it almost infinitely irritating. Of course, it specifically sets out to irritate people like me, so I suppose that's a success of sorts. Leaving aside the many criticisms I could offer (and recognizing that it's rather heavy sledding and I am, accordingly, not very far into it), he's got at least one very good idea. My intention is to grab hold of this idea, and to run with it.

Said is interested in the "large structure" of cultural thought, that gestalt of literature, poetry, scholarship, art, politics, and so on. He remarks that it's all interconnected, it all supports itself in a vast self-referential structure. Any individual item, let us say a poem, is simultaneously a symptom of the intellectual system of which it partakes, and a supporting part of that system. Said is largely interested in the ways Euros say mean things about Islam, and points out that things like a speech made by a British Colonial administrator both help to construct the system of thought, as well as being a natural product of that system.

This is, if not purely a restatement of remarks I have made in the past, at any rate related. I have talked about the gradual drip of change, the continuous stream of say, photographs out of Vietnam which helped to but did not ultimately generate the political shifts that ended the US involvement in that conflict. These photographs were simultaneously a symptom of political change in progress, and supported, fueled, that change. History seems to select a more or less random collection of iconic points to identify as "the causes" of the change, but this is, I feel, in error.

With this framework in mind, I have reconsidered my occasional forays in to "foreign" photography. I was disappointed with the Archive of Malian Photography, but I see now (I think) that I was foolish to hope for some instantly recognizable Malian-ness to the pictures. Of course the pictures look vaguely western, photography originated in the west and was extensively practiced in the west before it got to Mali. Of course the Malian photographers and subjects will follow, roughly, the model available to them. After all, to them no less than to us, this is what photography is. It looks like that.

Additionally, of course, photographs look like pictures of whatever's in front of the camera, and there will be a certain sameness built in there. It's not like photography uses uniquely Malian pigments or brushwork. It's all indexical representations of whatever was in front of the lens.

Anything essentially Malian about this body of work will have to emerge from the gestalt. Those structures of thought, of culture, that make up whatever it is that is essentially Mali (insofar as that even makes sense) will not reveal themselves in a single gesture, a single picture. It is a basic human fallacy to imagine that a foreign culture is revealed in a handful of colorful costumes, a poem or two, and perhaps a charming dance. It is not more sensible to imagine that a handful of photographs will reveal Mali, somehow. Indeed, because photography is so imbued with western-ness, such an idea is even sillier. If I want to find Mali, or South Africa, or Vietnam, or Poverty, or Swing Dance in photographs, I will need to look at a bunch of them and I will need to take time with the context that wraps around them.

This photograph:

by Alfonso Iannelli was presented in a forum as "not needing words" to grasp. My response was that it is easy to grasp precisely because we're seen an enormous number of these pictures, accompanied by a lot of words. The picture is, transparently, an execution of the FSA style, and as such is trivially read as American Poverty, Depression Era, Southern. This is, it happens, more or less correct. But we can read it as such only because it exists in the shadow of an enormous body of propagandist work created under the direction of Roy Stryker, specifically to create that big structure, that Idea of America, that would support the FSA's mission. This photograph is a consequence of (a symptom) of the labors of the FSA photographers, and it also supports and expands that same Idea of America.

Walker Evans would never have printed this one, he'd have used another frame where the dog is more fortuitously positioned, but it is clear that Fons Iannalli was copying Evans and the FSA work.

The FSA's photographic work is, in small, much like the system of thought Said names as "Orientalism", in that it is a self-consistent, self-referential, body of work that represents an idea of something. Said's point is that the map is not the territory, and that the idea represented is not the thing itself (again, this is the sort of thing that excites the undergraduate mind omg the thing and the reference to the thing are different omg omg).

To grasp an Idea of Mali, one needs not a handful of pictures, but a complete body of work. But even that will not be Mali, it will be merely an Idea of Mali. Alas, this is about as good as it gets. It turns out that we can no more fit Mali physically inside of our heads than we can The Orient, so there it is.

Which leads around finally to the Revolution promised in the title.

I am currently engaged in a long term project, the same long term project many of us "lefties" are engaged in. We perceive a problem with global wealth, with capitalism as it exists today, and so on. We're unhappy with the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, and we feel that it is doing a great deal of harm. There's a lot of stuff going on, lots of unhappy people grumbling in one way or another.

People tend to seek the single big push, the one action of set or actions that will produce victory. Go on this one protest march! Impeach Trump! Write your congressmen!

There is no decisive battle. Indeed, it's not clear that victory is even a meaningful concept here. All of these actions are symptoms as well as supporting structures of a set of ideas, a system of thought, an intellectual construct which involves less capitalism, more social justice, etcetera and so on. A gestalt of ideas, roughly (but only roughly) agreed upon across the board. This construct is in competition with others, we can speak of the alt-right Idea of The World, or the Neoliberal Idea of The World, and so forth. Paradoxically, all these competing structures are themselves part of a larger structure, at least the total structure of human thought, and probably something quite a bit smaller. All of these ideas are probably rooted in, are merely branches of, Euro/American exceptionalism, say.

My contribution, I have decided, is to write books and take pictures. My goal is simply to add, in another medium, to that large intellectual structure which is the rough set of ideas I roughly agree with. The idea of capitalism controlled, contained. The idea that people's sexuality is perhaps not the government's business. The idea that skin color might be irrelevant to anything except how to light a portrait. Hence, my little book on San Francisco, and perhaps other similar little booklets in future.

My goal is not to provide the seminal work that changes everything, the prime mover, the ur-cause. There will be no such thing, in the first place, and in the second place that title will be granted after the fact more or less at random by those who write the histories. The work is done bit by bit, with a little book here, a picture there, a poem over here, a stirring graduation speech from that podium. I just want to do a bit here, a bit there. My books are a symptom as well as a support.

Victory isn't really a possibility in play here. There will be battles and wars, people will die, people will be broken to poverty and raised up to vast wealth, but the edifice of human thought, of human culture, these Ideas of Who We Are, these merely evolve and change, never dying, never holding quite still. One general theme is ascendant, and then another. I merely want to nudge my pet notions upwards for the nonce.

Still, let us hope that the good guys win!


Sunday, August 13, 2017

I Cannot Resist - Off Topic

I don't know anything about high end watches, and I assume that they're all priced in absurd ways. Still, I cannot resist a remark.

Ming is selling a watch.

As noted, I have no idea if the $900 price tag is reasonable or absurd, but I do know that the movement in it is a clone of a swatch movement.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Art! Fame! Culture!

Two largely unrelated things have touched my consciousness recently, and per my usual methods I intend to place them next to one another to see what illumination might be cast one upon the other.

The first is the news that Cindy Sherman is on Instagram, together with the associated backlash. Apparently some elements of the media are cooing rather too loudly for some of the more precious critics out there, who are tweeting angry tweets.

The second item is that I am starting in on Edward Said's book, Orientalism. So far I have read the introduction, but I have a day at the beach today!

I must admit that I am finding Said tedious. He's spent an immense number of words to tell us that literature, politics, ideas, culture, and so on are all intermingled, interconnected, and cannot reasonably be understood separately. Further, almost all of what we think and believe is mediated through this mess. This strikes me as so obvious that one hardly need to even say it, let alone expend thousands of words of turgid prose. Still, it is just the sort of thing that galvanizes the undergraduate mind, and is also the exact opposite of much the 20th century's more abstruse academic thought (cf. Derrida). It is possible I find Said tedious because his ideas are so embedded as to be (now) obvious.

Anyways.

What about Sherman's Instagram? Well, to me it just looks like she's having fun. There is no denying that some people think she's doing something Important or Astonishing, and it's not at all obvious to me that she is, but see below. The refrain from the precious critics on Twitter might be if it wasn't Sherman, nobody would care about these pictures which is probably true.

This is to quite miss the point, which is that Sherman did make these things. Her fame is part of the rich cultural stew in which all works of art live. You cannot discard her fame, any more than you can discard a caption or the left half of the frame.

George Bush's paintings would be utterly uninteresting if he were not a former president, but to try to push them aside as uninteresting is wrongheaded. I'm not advocating hanging these things in the MOMA but his fame, his former role, do lend the pictures some interest. If nothing else, they gain a little historical weight, they speak, or might speak, to the nature of the man who was president.

How much more weight do Sherman's selfies on Instagram have?! Sherman is, after all, widely recognized as the JS Bach of the selfie. He didn't invent the fugue, she didn't invent the self portrait, but both mightily thrust their forms forward and up. The fact the Sherman is making these pictures, now, is inherently interesting. Who cares if they're "good" or "new" or "cutting edge"? That's irrelevant, or at best secondary.

If Bach in his dotage had written a series of 24 suites for kazoo, we might legitimately re-examine the kazoo, we might legitimately ask what on earth did the old bastard see in the kazoo here at the end?

Maybe nothing. Maybe Sherman is just playing around and there's nothing really to be read here. Maybe it just means that Sherman, the selfie queen, thinks that Instagram is jolly good fun. That right there is worth noting, though.

This is not to say that what famous people do is automatically "good". It is often important, influential, in a sense. If we wish to understand our world, we need to be attentive to the famous, however idiotic they may seem, for they do shape our world. It's all interconnected, and it is through all of this that we see, we grasp, our world. Sherman's presence on Instagram has changed that medium, it has changed photography, it has changed Art. Subtly to be sure, perhaps infinitesimally. But the change, the impact, is there.

Warhol was a sharp fellow.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Digital vs. Analog

I alluded to some of these ideas in the previous remarks, but I'll expand on them here. This is, in part, me taking another swing at "everyone is wrong about digital photography."

There's a strong current of belief that digital photography is in a fundamental way different from analog photography, in its bones, its DNA, or something. I assert, every now and then, and now once again, that this simply is not so. The new observation I have made recently explains why:

Digital photographic technology deliberately copies analog photography's model. How shall we make a digital camera? Well, replace the small flat rectangle of light sensitive film with a small flat rectangle of light sensitive silicon, and we're done, right? Whatever we read out of the chip is the single first generation object, a direct analog of the negative. Then you process that in ways that are very much analogous to film.

Lightroom (the dominant tool for handling those first generation files) even calls it developing! Photo editors have tools called "burn" and "dodge" for crying out loud.

Everything is easier, more plastic, and you can undo a lot of it and do it over. You can "develop" the same "film" over and over in different ways. You can undo your "dodging" and do it again. And you can do it all easily, sitting on your increasingly broad behind, rather than sweating over trays of chemicals.

The only substantive differences, though, are those. The speed, the ease, the plasticity, the undo. All the normal stuff that happens when you translate something analog into the digital domain.

These things do generate cultural change. It's not that digital is somehow different in a magical way, it's that it's the same thing only super easy, which has led to the current state of things. Pictures are ephemeral, disposable, lightweight, trivial. Or at any rate more than they were. Polaroids were never that serious or permanent an object in our cultural consciousness, to be sure. But the digital picture is moreso.

Since taking, editing, and sharing a picture is so easy, that part is now the simplest part of a larger process of promoting a false image of your own life. Literally every other aspect of faking your life or anything else you want to present disingenuously is more difficult. The plasticity, the editablity, of the digital picture hardly comes into it. The girl who wakes up, showers, puts on makeup, blowdries her hair, and gets back into bed for the #wokeuplikethis selfie is literally a cliche. If you look particularly happy, relaxed, luxurious, people assume that you're faking it.

They still kind of trust the picture. Sure, it's got a filter, it probably wasn't that sunny out, and you're probably not as happy as you look, and you probably borrowed that cute bikini, and you cropped out your tummy for a reason, dintcha? But the picture itself is probably pretty much honest as far as it goes.

The big changes are coming. As computational photography comes along (and it is coming, make no mistake) we're finally dropping the analog model. The "negative" is no longer to be simple indexical capture of the image cast on a flat surface by a lens. It will be a fused, computed, result from multiple lenses, from multiple sensors, of data from various sources. The "negative" will be interpolated, annotated, guessed-at, filled in from here and there. It won't be indexical. It will be rich, literally three dimensional, filled with data and cues that will make it far more malleable than today's pictures.

The plasticity of the new "negative" will astound us. Dropping out the background will be a one-click operation.

"Here we are in front of the Eiffel Tower."
"Sweetie, can we make all the other people go away?"
"Sure!" <click>
"And maybe move us in closer?"
<click>
"Ha ha! Can you put us at the pyramids?"

And so on.

People already distrust photographs. Computational photography is going to take that to a whole 'nother level, as the editability leaps to new heights. We now treat the look of the picture as untrustworthy, because you can apply filters trivially. With computational photography the content becomes just as malleable. Now the indexicality of the picture, never truly present in a computed photo anyways, becomes discardable utterly.

Not only do we make the gloomy day look a bit warm and sunny, we can change the sailboat we're standing on to a much larger one.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Colberg on Pictures

I do so like it when people actually take a credible swing at "what's it all about then?" sorts of questions in photograph. Colberg has written a piece, The Perfect Imperfect Picture. Don't misunderstand me, he's all wrong, and I am about to talk about why, but I appreciate the effort, and I appreciate that people are thinking about this kind of thing.

First of all, he's more or less right that there is a great deal of variation in what we actually get to look in with a digital photograph, just as there was a certain amount of variation with analog. He does start right in with muddling things up, though. In the analog world he seems to be talking about frame-to-frame variation. This piece of film rendered this scene in one way, the next one rendered this other scene, this other picture in another way. In digital land, he's talking about how differently the same picture is rendered in various contexts.

Later, he revists this idea in a way that makes it clear that the first thing (different renderings of the same picture) is irrelevant, even to Colberg.

Next up, he jumps to a brief vignette on "what is a photograph anyways, where is the, you know, the actual thing itself?" which is a perfectly good question to ask, and one that doesn't have a good answer, but he fetishizes technology for a moment by saying "it must be the code, the code is the thing" which is a refrain I find numbingly tiresome. In the first place, "code" is the program, it's the app, it's the part that does calculation. "Data" is the passive stuff upon which calculations are done. What Colberg is talking about is, technically, "data" not "code", unless his phone encodes pictures as a FORTRAN program that, when executed, writes out a JPEG file. Which I can assure you is not the case.

To say "code" sounds cooler, though, so it's kind of in vogue.

Anyways, it's all irrelevant, because in the second place there's a clear and precise analog between the first generation file (JPEG, DNG, RAW, whatever) and the negative. It's the unique thing produced by the instrument, and if you must answer "what is the actual thing?" then that's as good an answer as any. And it's simply not very interesting (unless you're planning to fetishize technology, which apparently you must) to examine the differences between "negative" and "first generation data file", they're the same for all ontological purposes. And then, just as every print pulled from a negative is a little different, so every rendering of the file is. In digital land, surprise, everything happens a lot faster, a lot more frequently.

After a mysterious trip to the world of gratuitous and wrong-headed slams on Sontag, Colberg gets to to the meat of his thesis.

People, he asserts, like imperfections in their pictures.

The first problem here is that he's approaching this like an engineer and an amateur gearhead photographer. What on earth is an imperfection? He sounds like some douchebag on a forum bitching about "missed focus" or "white balance is wrong."

Colberg is now back to muddling up variations in renders of the same picture with variations in handling of different pictures, but here it is important.

Nobody cares much if colors look a little different on their phone and your screen. This is variation between different renders of the same picture, and most people consider it irrelevant unless the differences are enormous, and then they find it irritating. The important point here is that the renders remain indexical. It is important to note that an indexical representation of a scene, one that corresponds directly to the scene, is not unique. There can be many indexical representations of the same thing. There can be, in short, many photographs of the same thing, each exactly as "true" as the other, all different.

When people apply filters to their phone snaps, to make them look like vintage film, obviously they do care, and they like the look. This is handling different pictures differently, or sometimes making multiple different pictures from the same underlying first generation file. It doesn't actually have anything to do with the things Colberg started with, with this notion of different renderings.

Finally, Colberg gets around to something sensible and interesting.

So, people are smashing up their pictures with filters and whatnot. Somehow, this is not damaging the credibility of pictures (or is it?), and somehow, people seem to want to want the look of glitchy, weird, serendipitous accidents, and that does indeed have to mean something.

Unfortunately, he leaves it right there, just when it's about to get interesting.

He has an opportunity here to draw his two muddled things back together, to talk about something like the evidentiary properties of a photograph. We, collectively, will accept various renders of the same picture, as well as quite a lot of deliberate variation in the form of edits and filters, as evidence. You can smash a picture up fairly brutally, at least in technical terms, and we, your audience, will still treat it as proof that you were at that diner, that party, that beach. If my screen renders your picture with a weird green cast, or if Facebook's servers have made it all soft with overcompression, I still treat it as proof.

There's nothing inherent about digital technologies here, to be sure. Commentators like Colberg and, and well everyone except me as far as I know, are obsessed with the idea that digital photographs are somehow, inherently, in their underlying nature, different. That is simply not true. There are direct analogs with every aspect of analog photography (of course they are, analog photography is the model the digital guys copied, and continue to copy). There are at least two different approaches to Adams's Moonrise over Hernandez photo out there, and many different prints. Nobody, however, denies that Adams was there on that road, at that time.

What is different is the pace, the amount, the numbers. Rather than 4 different prints, all subtly different, we have a thousand, a million, a billion different renders on different screens. We have different interpretations through filters and photoshop, 2, 5, 100, as many as you care to churn out, every one a click away. None of the individual instances is substantively different from what might have occurred in the bad old days of film.

But the sheer quantity is different, is new. It changes things, in ways we don't fully understand. Digital has changed things, it is different.

Commentators and critics like Colberg and Bush are, however, quite wrong about why.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Seeing, Objectivity, Etcetera

Ming Thein has a piece up over here that I disagree with, I think. To be honest, I have trouble wading through his prose these days, but I think he's talking about photography as documenting the novel, the changed, the differences. He seems to be, at least partly, espousing the usual rot of how going to somewhere new allows us to see new things, in new ways, and therefore the pictures get better.

This is the mentality that drives the workshop business, it drives a fair bit of travel in general, and I vigorously disagree with it.

The photographer's job is not to notice and photograph the novel, the new, the different. The photographer's job is orthogonal to that, it has nothing to do with novelty. It's about seeing what is truly there, in a way that is idiosyncratic, that is informed by the photographer's person-ness. If you're just looking for the novel, well, a robot will be able to do that in a couple of years. If you're just looking to document what is, a robot can do that now.

As a consequence of this, travel is contraindicated. You can't see what is truly there without spending some time, and you cannot see it in your own specific way without spending more time, and you need to do both. So, as I have said before, travel is fine as long as you spend a ton of time in-country. Indeed, Ming alludes to this in his post, remarking that he doesn't get good pictures until the end of a trip.

The problem so many would-be photographers face, though, is that they have never learned to see what is truly there. Our view of the world is mediated through our big fat brain, which has a big fat visual cortex, which is connected with everything else. It's hard to see what is truly there. But, well, that's the job, so you jolly well ought to learn how to do it. This is one reason, I think, that everyone advocates for taking 1000s of pictures of whatever. It's a half-assed method of learning to see what's actually there.

I advocate just sitting there and looking, until you are bored with looking, and then look some more. George Perec's An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (which I have not read) is probably a good model to follow.

You can actually observe the amateur photographer's inability to see online, when they "critique" one another's work, or attempt to help one another replicate some look they've seen on the web. They seem to almost always miss the forest for the trees, harping on about "missed focus" or "move the light" or whatever, and don't notice that the main thing is that the picture is dark and de-saturated. The critics are seeing photographs through their own preconceptions and ideas.

Once you know what is genuinely in front of your nose, then you can start to apply your own person-ness, to photograph what is truly there in your own way.

Of course, every photograph does this in a way. At worst you're selected what to take a picture of, although if you have no yet learned to see what is truly there you're just selecting preconceptions and illusions. Still, to really be a photographer, you should be applying your own idiosyncracies in an organized way, not at random.

Anyways, this all leads around to the final point which is an essential conflict in photojournalism, and something I have just realized.

Photography, at its core, is about an idiosyncratic world view. If the pictures are any damn good, if they're interesting to look at, it's because the photographer who took them has inserted a personal viewpoint, an opinion, some ideas, something. And yet, modern journalism insists that these things should be objective, pure document, just the facts, ma'am.

Purely factual photographs are possible, but terribly dull. A robot could, in theory, document much of what counts as news in a more or less objective fashion.

Arguably, robot journalism (we're seeing mentions now and then of systems for automatically writing short press articles, usually based on already extant data streams like auto-generated earthquake reports and whatnot) will lead to a brave new era of more objective journalism that absolutely nobody reads.

Monday, July 31, 2017

FSA/OWI Archive, The Hole-Punch, and Photoshop

Those of us who are more or less familiar with the history of the FSA/OWI know that Roy Stryker used a hole punch to "cancel" negatives that he deemed not suitable for printing. So, there's a big pile of negatives out there with little holes in them. This is often reported as a Historical Travesty etc, and there are sometimes Dark Hints that Stryker cancelled negatives that did not support his propagandist program.

All of this is absurd. Most of punched negatives I have seen have the hole jammed through somewhere obvious but otherwise at random. Stryker wasn't trying to destroy information, particularly. Indeed, the negatives remain archive. To properly destroy the information, Stryker would have shredded them or similar, and he certainly wouldn't have carefully preserved them and arranged for their transfer to the Library of Congress. Techniques for destroying film certainly existed and were used by the government.

What Stryker was doing, at least mostly, was picking out the good ones. The propaganda campaign, which was very real, was executed largely by giving his team shooting scripts.

In some cases, a face is obscured, perhaps a sign or similar important detail is chopped out. In many cases, of course, another negative from the same group will be available, un-punched or punched in a different way. The point is that, in general, the punched hole doesn't really delete anything of historical interest.

Which leads us to Photoshop. This chappie at the University of Connecticut said to himself "what would happen if we used Photoshop's content aware fill to fill that hole back in?" and the answer is, obviously, "it does OK as long as there's nothing interesting in the hole". See his article here.

He goes on to speculate about what this might all mean. You'd think that as the Head of Digital Imaging and Conservation at a University he'd think this stuff through a bit, but no, what we get is this:

Yet, what are we to make of these surrogate negatives? Though they are not based upon standard content replication like their hole-punched brethren, the software-filled versions still hold a certain spell and feel of visual symmetry. From an archival standpoint we may even regard them as born-digital objects in their own right. Perhaps in the end they may simply be best considered informed guesses on fragments of displaced history.

"born digital objects in their own right," how terribly cute! What they are, sir, is they are bloody dangerous and little else. The trouble with these damned things is that part of them is false. Part of them is not indexical, it is guessed at by the computer, and we don't know which part. The thing looks and smells like a photo, and most of it is a photo, so we trust it. Part of it, an unknown part, isn't a photo. More or less by definition this process cannot add to the truth value of the photograph, it can only subtract. Taking historical artifacts and making them less true is probably not a great idea.

These things are definitely going to to muddled up with the real things, hopefully not in the official archive, but definitely on the interwebs. People will be using content aware fill to "fix" these pictures, and they'll be sticking them up on pinterest.

But wait, real research doesn't get done on pinterest, so we're OK, right? Yeah, well, real researchers also don't go painting over bits of history with bullshit like content aware fill to see what will happen either, do they? Oh, wait, yes they do. Of course real research is done on pinterest. People with loads of funny letters after their names pull random shit off the web all the time. And even if they don't, they do look at wikipedia, which is the distillation of random shit pulled off the internet.

It's probably not a huge deal. So someone makes a wrong deduction about how dresses were made in the 1930's based on some garbage photoshop invented in some picture. Big deal. Well, this is how history dies. So, yeah, in a way, big deal. It's one cut of a thousand, but I'm still not in favor.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Olive Cotton Award for photographic portraiture

There's a modest tempest in a modest teapot that's slopping around the photographic press and online communities. This picture:



won the $20,000 (little Australian dollars, I assume) award, and has been acquired by the Tweed Regional Gallery. What the hell even is it you might reasonably ask, since it's not obvious. The artist asserts this:

One day, not so long ago, I came upon my maternal grandmother hunched over a table, vigorously testing a series of pens by scribbling with each of them in turn on a piece of paper. Captivated by this busy repetition of gestures, so reminiscent of her character, I asked her to continue her task, but on a piece of 4 x 5 inch negative film. Having left these traces of her hand on this light-sensitive surface, she also, at my request, rubbed some of her saliva on the film, doubling her bodily inscription there. I then processed the film and printed it at large scale. A collaboration across generations, with her born in Hungary and me in Australia, the resulting image looks abstract but couldn’t be more realist; no perspectival artifice mediates her portrayal of herself or our genetic link, with both now manifested in the form of a photograph.

which is an explanation of sorts.

Naturally all the gearheads masquerading as photographers are up in arms. No Skill! No Work! It's Not Even a Photograph! which I gotta say to, pot, kettle, etc. The angry claims that there wasn't much effort expended are hilarious from photographers, who expend the effort of flexing a finger to make a picture. Claims of "no skill" are invariably fraught, there's no telling what a mirror might reveal. And, it is obviously a photograph.

Looking over the catalog that goes with this contest, you can see that nobody who submitted thinks this is about 5-light Sears Portraits. Nobody even thinks it's about the sort of thing Kirk Tuck does. This is about Collectible Fine Art, which means that it's all pretty outré. The winner stands out, but only slightly. So, the repeated complaints I have read about "the other contestants being cheated" are also bunk.

The one issue that leaps out to me is embedded in the artist's statement. Did Grandma test pens in pitch blackness? The scenario outlined for the process is, I think, simply false. There's no way this works. The film is fully fogged and contains no picture in any reasonable reading of the statement. This, I think, makes the whole thing problematic. The thing doesn't work unless Grandma was actually involved. Did Grandma actually scribble on a piece of acetate or similar, which the artist then contact printed onto film?

Weirdly, despite reading a certain amount of online, um, discussion, I have not run across anyone who's pointed this out. Which is extremely weird to me. Has all knowledge of film and its properties been lost?

For the record, I think the work is fine. Portraits don't have to have faces in them, Karsh photographed Pablo Casals from behind. Lots of people have done work photographing traces and ephemera of people, and those too can reasonably be included under the head of "portrait" if you're remotely generous. The work is interesting, and of the pieces we see in the contest's catalog, it's not at all obvious that this is not the winner.

Still, its essence as a portrait hinges on a story that is, in technical details, obviously false.

This raises some questions. If it's just scribbles the artist made, together with a story the artist wrote, is it still any good? Is it anything? If it's Art, is it now a Micro Fiction, rather than a photograph? Is it a prank?

Whatever the truth of the matter, I feel that Duchamp is smiling.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Automation

There seems to be a little spurt of interest around automated photography, of using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to replace the human here, in one way or another. All part of the current trend of Rich Idiots in Silicon Valley being interested in AI, I assume.

A little background, speaking as a recovering technologist.

AI is a blanket term for a set of technologies that allow computers to simulate, with varying degrees of crudity, things humans do. Recognize spoken speech, recognize objects in pictures, play chess, solve logic puzzles, and so on. Despite the name, none of these things are "intelligence" in anything like human terms. These are all things I would characterize as remarkably simple, even stupid, algorithms (pieces of software) that produce startlingly, unreasonably, sophisticated results. In this context, "remarkably simple" doesn't mean "simple", it means "a lot less mind-bogglingly complicated than one might think."

Important notes in no particular order: There's no "person" in there in any meaningful sense, and in fact nobody knows how to even get started making a software "person." This does not appear to be a current area of study. The software that turns your spoken words into text has no relationship with the software that plays chess at a Grand Master level. The phrase "neural network" does not mean that the software resembles a brain in any meaningful way, the phrase just means another remarkably simple algorithm (inspired by real neurons) which can produce useful results.

Onwards. Colberg pointed out on twitter this project: Computed Curation. Philppe Schmitt (whoever that is) has bolted together some of the aforementioned AI technologies to make a piece of software that can sift through some photos and sequence up a photobook.

It does a tolerable, if pedestrian, job. The connections appear to be both simplistic and entirely linear. The only points of real interest are places where I suspect the computer has mis-read a photograph. We should also keep in mind that this might be entirely a scam.

Anyways, let us suppose that the software works as advertised. So what?

The point of a creative endeavor is that it is the output of a person, it is the result of intent driven by a lifetime of experience, experience remembered by the unreliable mechanisms of the brain. Without a person, there can be no intent. Without intent, there is arguably no creative output.

Schmitt's book is sequenced, as I noted, but there's no intent. It's obvious in a moment that this is a random string of pictures connected together with superficial visual similarities. The important point here, though, is that this is not a problem that can be fixed. This isn't simply an early version of the software, this is basic to what the software does. There's no place for an "intent" to be generated by the thing, and to get it right you first have to make a software "person" to have the intent.

This is not to say that some clever Johnny won't take a crack at simulating intent with, no doubt, a remarkably simple piece of software. This pseudo-intent, while potentially interesting, isn't actual intent. Remember, there is no ghost in the machine, there's no person in there in any meaningful sense. If it's good enough, I suppose it would say something or other about the nature of Art. If I can establish a genuine-feeling connection with a simulation, then what? It doesn't matter much, I am not much interested in yet another way to Trick The Brain.

An alternative is to provide a way for an actual person to encode an intention, and to have the software produce results based on that intention combined with the usual collection from the AI parts bin. In that case, what we have is another tool for artists to use. Maybe it's interesting, maybe it's not, but at the end of the day it's not much different from premixed oil paints.

Art is distinguished from much of the rest of human endeavor by lacking a well defined endpoint. I can define exactly what it means to win a game of chess, I can measure accurately how precise a speech recognition algorithm is. I cannot define precisely when a piece of Art works, I cannot define precisely when it is Good. Without a well-defined goal, software inherently has problems, and is left to thresh around a bit wildly. Art's result, Art's endpoint, is itself. The goal is in the thing itself, in the process by which it was made, in the human who made it, an an inextricable ball of entangled relationships. This presents a real problem for software.

Our friend Lewis Bush, writing his usual maze of misplaced apostrophes and abused prepositions (or is "A is different to B" actual British usage?) for World Press Photo over here is on the trail of something more interesting.

Journalism isn't Art, and there's no particular reason that algorithms can't do it just fine that I can see. Lewis is just throwing a bunch of stuff against the wall, a random selection of technological works in progress (that are mostly going nowhere) that he's stumbled over in his reading. Lewis, as usual, is fetishizing technology without much understanding of it.

There is real trouble here, though, which as far as I can tell, he's missed completely. Journalism will inevitably shift to accommodate automation. Lewis needs to recall his Sontag: we don't photograph the important things, we make some things important by photographing them.

Automated journalism will reshape the news. If the algorithms can't be taught to reliably make national elections an Important Subject Of News (to pick an example at random) then national elections will cease to be important news. We see this constantly in all walks of life now, the flexible human bends to accommodate the inflexible and stupid computer.

I don't know if we're there yet, but if we're not, it's very very close: Facebook's robots will select for us which pictures are interesting, and those will be the ones we see. A combination of algorithms and crowd-sourcing will select for us what to look at. It is literally inevitable.

News and journalism do suffer from the lack of endpoint problem that Art has, the difference is that it doesn't matter (in the current zeitgeist, anyways). Anything will do for news, now, as long as it generates the clicks. So, in fact, it has always been. News was whatever got the troubadour paid, news was whatever shifted newspapers, news was whatever got you to watch the TV, and now news is whatever gets the clicks. Still, there were humans in the loop, and ideas about what journalism "ought to be" which now and then got a little play. Algorithms will remove that entirely. The engineers will get it good enough to pull the clicks, and then stop, because that's what engineers do.

You can argue, I think, that Art currently also has to "nobody cares" problem, and that therefore software that does a shabby job of simulating artistic intent will do just fine. You might be right. Not sure the Art Market will put up with that for very long. They don't put up with anything for very long. The relentless pursuit of the novel will push the computer aside in due course, in favor of some new variant of the facile fast-talking young turk with a new story and a new My Sad Project project.

For journalism, perhaps there is space, suddenly, for a revival of Life magazine in some new, contemporary form. People are, thankfully, a cutely aware of the fact that Facebook is running their lives, that Facebook is skewing what they see in order to sell them stuff.

Prepare for some backlash! I don't know what it will look like! I hope it will be fun!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Sequencing: Spreads and Gutters

I've been thinking about the two page spread, the sort of "atom", or smallest indivisible unit of the photobook, and looking at what people have done with them.

The most obvious remark one can make is that, since the 2-page spread is (basically) what we "look at" each spread needs to function as a unit, somehow or another. You can make a (strong) analogy with composing a picture, since in a very real sense that is what you are doing in laying one of these out. The spreads, of course, have to work with one another, from one spread to the next, from the first one to the last.

The standard approach is to reduce the 2-page spread to a single picture. Usually, this is printed recto with the verso either blank, or carrying accompanying text. A title, a poem, whatever you like. Less often, we see single pictures printed across the gutter. Perhaps a full bleed spread, or something else.

If the author chooses to place more than one photo in a spread, the most common design is one photo recto, another verso, with the two pictures echoing one another in some way. Similar graphical design, similar textures, similar subjects, similar tonalities or colors. This is the easy way to make them "work together" to create a coherent spread.

Szarkowski's The Photographer's Eye is a remarkable example of this. Each spread contains, often, two or more pictures, and is its own little world. Sometimes it's a group of 5 pictures of hands. One places one of Evans's torn movie posters with ruined faces looking to the left, against Lange's Funeral Cortege which features a face in a window, again looking left. There's not a lot going on from one spread to the next, but Szarkowski manages to make each spread amazingly coherent on several levels.

I don't see any particular reason that one could not as well use contrast rather than similarity, but whatever one does, one needs to be cognizant of the rest of the book. If you make verso a high key portrait, and recto a murky architectural study, well, that says something. It's not "together" so you will need it to make sense some other way, in the context of the book.

Indeed, in all cases, one needs to keep in mind the needs of the book. Szarkowski has the luxury of making a survey, so one spread need not particularly related to the next, except in the sense of fitting the larger theme set in each chapter of his book.

It occurs to me that a real tour de force would be to create one theme on the verso pages, and a second theme on the recto pages, while simultaneously making each 2 page spread function on some fashion or another.

About the gutter.

I learned something from Sally Mann's Immediate Family about the gutter and its use. Mostly we consider the gutter a nuisance, a place where content goes to die. Print across the gutter if you must, but try to avoid having important picture elements drop into it.

Mann does something quite different. Most of the book is 2 picture spreads, one recto, one verso, with some strong relationship between the two. Now and then, we get a single photo. Often, it is printed recto with the verso blank. Then we get a handful of single pictures printed across the gutter. Mann can perfectly well just print things recto, she does this a lot, so, what the hell?

The answer is that she's embracing the gutter, which is bloody genius as far as I can tell. I swooned.

If a picture divides neatly into two, she prints it across the gutter with the gutter cutting it at the right spot. Three pictures for the price of one. In a couple of cases, she seems to be, rather, indicating an alternate crop, "take the whole thing, or if you prefer, just take the recto" which is 2 for 1, not quite the bargain, but still a nice price.

Anyways, the big lesson here is that printing across the gutter does not require that the picture be placed symmetrically. The gutter can fall wherever you like, so use it, drop that strong vertical element into the right spot.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

A Trend?

Perhaps a trendlet?

I've run across several bits and pieces of Modern Art, or references to Modern Art, or whatever, which take the general form of the artist refusing to admit that there's a concept behind the Art. "The meaning is fluid" or whatever seems to be the catch phrase. One collection on display right now in Vancouver is literally random detritus glued to a table, with the meaning "fluid" and "open to the viewer to interpret" or something. Which tells me "we glued a bunch of shit to a table and have no idea what it means either, fuck you, sucker."

We also see this in a fair bit of the sort of amateur-hour political art that is in vogue in some circles. "My practice deploys multiple media to interrogate the various aspects of the Corporatist Stateoid Mechansism" or whatever.

There is a certain vague sense to it. 200 years ago Art was largely about technique, artisanal skills. It was assumed, I think, that there were ideas and concepts and so on, but that was basically just assumed. Then we get photography and that leads more or less directly to conceptual art, where the work, the skill, is basically nil. The idea becomes dominant. Art is no longer about skills, it's about ideas. Naturally the next thing to do would be to jettison ideas.

The begs the question of what the hell Art's about now, and I think there's a real problem here.

Secondarily, though, we see a related problem.

We've all taken that picture of grandma, which has so much meaning to us. When we were naive and young, we probably didn't see why everyone didn't see what a powerful photo it was. Everyone else just saw a kind of blurry photo of some old lady they didn't know, after all.

In much the same way we have naive young artists taking, I don't know, a bunch of pictures of refugees. Because they are good lefties, they see a Powerful Political Statement here, and assume that everyone sees the same. It's obviously an indictment of the anti-refugee policies of The State, or of the policies that created the refugee crisis, or whatever.

The trouble is that it's not obvious at all. The Artist won't take a position, he or she insists on just documenting the thing. Positions, ideas, concepts, opinions, those are all so last century. We're in a post-conceptual world now, and Art is just printing out a bunch of appropriated pictures and letting the meaning be "fluid." Sure, your friends all get it, because they're basically little clones of you, with your same simplistic leftie politics, they'll recognize all of it and they will applaud you for your Powerful Work.

This, unfortunately, leaves things too open. Plenty of people in this world look at a bunch of refugees in a camp, or drowned on a beach, or whatever, and say "good idea! Send 'em back!" and plenty of people see the tools of The State and say "hooray, we're very powerful!" and so on.

If you don't, as an Artist, make your opinion, your concept, clear, then the critics will gabble on about "fluidity" instead of repeating the position (and then judging you based on it, to be sure, but they'll start by stating your case). If the critics don't state your case, then the only thing that has a chance of leaking into the wider culture is the raw "documentation" you have so cutely put together, and everyone who runs across it will interpret it according to their own lights.

This completely de-weaponizes Art as a tool of change.

Colberg, unfortunately, missed out on a lovely chance to get in to this. His most recent piece reviewed Generation Wealth, which seems to be one of the patented modern "just the documentation" pieces, with very little opinion stated by the author (although one cannot be sure, Colberg, infuriatingly, turns the bulk of the piece into a boring paean to his own sensitivity and forgets to tell us much of, well, anything about the bloody book). This could be usefully, I think, compared to the work of Gordon Parks (which he reviewed the week before).

I admit that Colberg might not be aware of this, it's not clear that the Parks book makes it at all clear what Parks was up to. A book of the photographs of Parks seems about as useful and sensible as a book of Shakespeare's verbs, but there you have it. I assume Colberg has done at least as much work as my trivial poking around, and is aware that Parks a) stated opinions and b) fomentend change, while modern efforts to do the equivalent to the modern oligarchy are mysteriously stalled out.

Anyways. I'm not blaming the academic artists for all the world's problems, but I do think that the ones that persist in not making their position clear aren't helping really at all. Their work is more or less by design not powerful at all. It is completely toothless.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Those Damned Iconic Pictures

I keep coming back to this. The single iconic photo, and its power. Or, really, lack thereof.

I noted in my previous remarks that, somehow, we seem to associate Single Iconic pictures with social changes that occurred before the picture was taken. This, I chalk up to memory effects, the fact that we tend to remember the last thing on a list, the more recent occurrence.

Noodling on it more I think there's also a process of rationalization. We want simple answers, pat answers. We want strong reasons.

I believe in anthropogenic climate change. Not that I want to debate it, but there it is. I suspect that the reason I believe in it is because Al Gore made this movie, which I found convincing. Why was I convinced? Not because the movie is air-tight. In fact it is precisely the sort of well-crafted self-consistent set of things that so often turn out to be bullshit. Did I check any of the scientific facts presented in the film? Nope. Are all those facts even true? Probably not.

I believed the film for essentially emotional reasons. It had the general shape of a strong argument, but more importantly it appealed to my peers, my politics, my history. In short, Gore's film is an effective piece of propaganda. Never mind whether it's true or not.

Over the years since, I have continued to rationalize my belief. The media has not had a Big Reveal that it's all bullshit, in fact the story remains more or less consistently the same. My experience teaches me that this further suggests that it's basically right, in some sense. Kennedy probably was not assassinated by the CIA, and Climate Change is probably a real thing.

True or not, the reasons for my belief are in fact muddy and emotional. All my rhetoric about science and media is merely window dressing, rationalization.

In a similar way I think we seek to rationalize and simplify reasons for changes we see in society, and sometimes those rationalizations crystalize around a picture, or a couple pictures (or a book, or a movie, etc). The US military adventure in Vietnam ended for a wild array of interlocking reasons, one large one being public outcry, a total collapse of public support. The reasons for that outcry, that collapse, are also myriad, interlocking, muddy.

But we like our history simple, so we seize on a simpler version: The US withdrew from Vietnam because of public outcry against the war which was in turn driven by Nick Ut's picture of a naked little girl on fire.

It's rationalization and simplification. The public outcry was driven by a bunch of factors, including but not limited to a steady, apparently unending, drip of media coverage of the war and its atrocities.

Worth noting: I am not the only person who thinks this. The Pentagon, manifestly, agrees. They're very carefully managing the steady drip of media coverage. We know almost nothing about the many dozens of adventures they are currently having abroad, and what little we hear is largely positive (we are heros!) or dramatic (a few of our boys and a helicopter died doing a Super Important Thing). There's nothing of the venal, stupid, dirty, bullshit that is 99.9999% of "warfighting."

A few Abu Ghraib's don't matter, it turns out, though everyone in The Media was pretty sure that one was the Napalm Girl moment that would spell the end of US involvement in Iraq. Oops. Not so much.

And all of this of course, is rationalization for my purely emotional belief that photobooks are the greatest thing ever and the fine print is a dead end. How's my propaganda campaign working for you?

Friday, July 7, 2017

Photos/Social Change/Gordon Parks

I've been doing a little light reading to fill in at least a little background on Gordon Parks. It's obvious that while his name rang no particular bells, his work has its boot prints all over me and my life. And that's not at all a bad thing.

While it is by no means clear to me that his photographic work was particularly seminal or important in the history of photography, it is crystal clear that he's socially, culturally, very important. He did a lot of work on race in America, and it is at least credible to say that he was very influential on that front. He took pictures, he wrote, he made movies. He composed music and poetry. He was, obviously, some kind of freakish polymath.

Let's start out by saying that he worked for Roy Stryker at the FSA/OWI, and then later at Standard Oil. This was a relationship that went on for 5 or 6 years. Not a long time, but enough. Stryker was a propagandist, plain and simple, and he was a good one. This does not mean that I disapprove of Stryker, particularly. When I say "propaganda" I mean it in a neutral way, you could as well say "strong story-telling" and it would mean more or less the same thing. What I mean is that Stryker was expert at -- it was literally his job for 15 years -- shaping a visual story to suit an end. There is no doubt that Parks learned from Stryker, and indeed it shows in the rest of his career.

To be quite clear, let me state it baldly: this is propaganda that the USA was in sore need of, and I am pleased as anything that Parks was able to do it.

There is this enduring idea that single iconic photos change the world. If you're me, you have some vague notions of this sort:
  • Nick Ut's picture Napalm Girl ended the Vietnam War.
  • Ansel Adams's photos of Yosemite led to the National Park System.
  • Gene Smith's picture of Tomoko halted pollution in Minamata.
None of these things is actually true. All of these pictures were taken more or less at the end of the events leading up to the result. More on that in a moment.

What actually changes this is a gradual normalization of ideas, a gradual shift in identity. While things are not perfect by any means in the world, we have shifted over the last 60-70 years. Corporations still pollute, but the general social consensus is that, when they do, they're evil, they're perverse. Racism is still pervasive, but again, the rednecks who do overtly racist things are evil weirdos. What we collectively, generally, consider "normal", has changed. Homosexuality, recently considered evil and perverse, is now rather more broadly considered normal.

Society, now as always, contains a complete spectrum of ideas. Change is not a mass exodus from one ideology to another, but is shift in where the median lies. Behaviors and ideas once considered normal, or acceptable, by most are now considered weird, wrong, by most. Correspondingly, behaviors and ideas once considered weird, wrong, and now normal and acceptable. By "most" people. Every mainstream position from 1980, 1960, or 1150, still has a group of adherents but it's probably smaller than it was in its heyday.

These changes are wrought slowly. LIFE and TIME did a lot of the spade work in their time. Some of the essays Parks did for LIFE are incredible, this is some seriously hot stuff. It's not clear it would be publishable at all today, in our twitchy press environment. It's possible that there is real motion in a retrograde direction now. We certainly see a lot of effort being expended to normalize an anti-Muslim attitude. Using, of course, exactly the same methods.

What Parks seems to have been up to is pretty straightforward, seen through the lens of Roy Stryker's approach to things. He's humanizing The American Negro from a variety of angles. Harlem Gang Leader, Black Muslims, and some ordinary families. I have not read the stories, but I am pretty sure that the narrative is one of normalizing. These are people, first and foremost, with some hopes and dreams and troubles that you, a White American, can identify with, and others that are somewhat mysterious to you.

This is basic stuff. Say some things which are true, which are identifiable, which connect with the reader. Then say some other stuff, the payload if you will. The payload might be true, it might not be. If you're Goebbels demonizing The Jew, your payload is probably some untrue stuff. If you're Gordon Parks trying to humanize The Negro, your payload is probably some true stuff. The mechanism is the same, though. How objectively "true" the payload is doesn't matter.

And then you keep it up. After a while, your readers have the idea that this is normal. They probably think they dreamed some of this stuff up themselves.

This, as far as I know, is the mechanism by which social change occurs. We'd like to think that social change can occur, that we can improve ourselves as a species, as a nation, as a company, as a bowling league, by rational discussion, through reason and common sense. I think that is false. We change collectively when someone has seized the microphone, and is delivering a carefully calibrated message. In days of yore, the microphone was frequently held by religious leaders, tribal leaders, feudal leaders. It's the media, today.

A wrapper of things we know to be true, a generous ladle of things we wish were true, all carrying a payload of things the speaker wants us to believe. A story shaped to gently shove us this way or that, a touch so light we don't really feel it.

It doesn't matter if you're trying to teach soldiers to hate the enemy, or teach white people to accept non-white people as humans, the mechanisms are the same.

Photographs play a huge role here, because they are things we know to be true, in their own peculiar way. But they do not do it through the single iconic picture. They work through the prosaic, the mundane, through repetition. Nick Ut's photo doesn't work because it's unusual, but because it's normal. Perhaps a little more shocking, but by the time Napalm Girl was published, the public had been seeing various horrors from Vietnam for 5 years or more.

I find it fascinating that we (or at least I) tend to associate a picture taken toward the end with the idea that this is the picture that did it, that effected the change. My theory is that, while it's the steady normalizing drip of pictures and words that actually do the work, the one we remember when it's all over is whichever one we saw most recently that was kind of striking. There are some documented memory biases that can have this result, the "Peak-end rule", and the "recency effect" at least.

This does leave open two questions that I think are important:

1. What, if anything, can be done about the pockets of "weirdos"? Is it just a question of keeping the pressure up, and whittling away at them?

2. What about the built-in stuff? An organization can be, for instance, sexist as anything without containing a single person who is sexist. The sexism is baked into the rules, the shared culture, the underlying ideas. Usually it's hidden under various veneers, so that the people in the organization don't even notice it.

Do the same mechanisms apply, perhaps targeted differently? How do I make a photo essay that addresses the fact "we've found that former race-car drivers make the best sales people for our product" almost entirely excludes women from the sales team? And if so, would it work? What social norm can be moved to address these things?

Do pictures work here, too?

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Colberg

I'm starting to have a problem with Jörg Colberg. His latest piece, a review of Steidl's study edition of the collected work of one Gordon Parks, which you can read here, is a great example. On the one hand, there's some good thoughtful stuff in there.

Everybody can make competent pictures, assuming they spend enough time with their cameras. A competent picture shouldn’t be used as the bar for anything (unless you’re teaching Photo 101). The bar should be higher, and it should be at the height that Parks put it for himself: make pictures that matter. Make pictures that convey a deep sense of urgency, where when someone looks at them even fifty years later they’ll be moved deeply. If you got someone to think that way, now or much later, then — and only then — you’re in business. Gordon Parks can show you the way.


This is basically a little drum I've been beating on this blog for several years (without mentioning Gordon Parks) so, obviously, I approve.

But then, but then. We stumble over Colberg's goofy habit of taking a swing at anything he thinks might be an establishment figure. This time it's Walker Evans, or more specifically, the "cult" surrounding Evans.

To this date, I can’t fully wrap my head around, for example, the Walker-Evans cult (which I will admit I find a bit creepy, too). I mean, I get the man’s importance. But what I don’t get is how there are few, if any, truly critical appreciations of his achievements.


To be honest, I have no idea what he's even asking for. What on earth is a "truly critical appreciation" anyways?

When you see the pattern (Sontag sucks, Steidl sucks, Evans sucks, Frank sucks...) it begins to feel like a litany of "oh, ok, everything that used to be good is shit" which, well, OK then. But you've jolly well got some work to do if you want to make that thesis stick, Jörg, and so far I ain't seeing it.

Then he sticks in his politics (of which we see a lot more on twitter, to our chagrin), which are the same sort of dime-store unconsidered self-contradictory stuff his undergrads no doubt espouse.

For the record, I'm on his side. I'm all for it. Throw the oligarchs out. Eliminate the military, and the corresponding industrial complex. Basic minimum income for all. Hell yeah, and viva la revolución. My family gives a good deal of money to local charities, and I quit my extremely good paying tech-sector job for a complicated mass of reasons, among them I can't stand the Silicon Valley habit of making tons of money selling bullshit, and figuring out the moral issues later, or maybe never.

Here Colberg's discount bin politics manifest in hand-wringing about why Parks isn't in the history books, with an implied "well, it's just racism, obviously" when there is surely the chance that it might be more nuanced than that. Colberg certainly doesn't know. For all I know Beaumont Newhall simply couldn't abide non-whites, but for all Colberg and I know, Parks simply wasn't influential enough. Being good doesn't make you important historically.

Colberg rather makes a point of not knowing (or at least not mentioning?) anything about Parks's actual historical role, so it's not clear to me how he can justify complaining about Parks's absence from the history books.

When you put together the "establishment figures are stupid" with "my politics are left wing and simplistic" you, at least if you are me, begin to recognize a very young person. These are precisely the positions one expects from a 19 year old who just joined the Campus Socialists Club. They are not, unfortunately, what one expects to see muddying the waters in someone's magazine-styled blog of criticism. Hence, my growing unease.

And yes, I am well aware of my role as a Pot here. Hush now.

For the record, the name Gordon Parks meant nothing to me when I saw it on Colberg's blog. It's possible that 20 years ago I was a total fanboy, or actively despised the man, but at present I remember exactly nothing. I take it as given that he was good, and a quick poke around certainly suggests that he was.

But good isn't enough. Being good isn't even relevant.

All that said, Colberg does make some legitimately good general points about what photography is for, what one might aim to do, and how one might distinguish between merely good pictures and important bodies of work. I'd like to see him write a lot more about that.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Sequencing III

I am working on a book about Bellingham's Summer, which is a somewhat abrupt and slightly mad time of year. The days are very long, and often very bright. We're sleeping poorly, and furiously trying to get all the Summer in that we can in the few short weeks we have.

Here I experiment with musical themes.

Theme One: the fecund growth of plant life, which we introduce with these pages of morning glories.






The theme of growth and multiplication should be clear, surely? I had thought to have one more page, a 3x4 or a 4x4 grid, that fills the page even more fully than the 3x3, but goodness it's a lot of work to mock these things up.

Once the theme is set, we can reference it by inserting the opening picture of a single tendril.

We can repeat this theme with variations, these two pictures could be substituted in for the first and last pictures, without loss, I think:




Obviously we could mix up the pictures in the collages, or replace individual photos. We could play around with sizes when we recapitulate this theme (or any theme).

Theme Two: photos drawn from the local Farm Market, which is really a sort of weekly fair. A few people making balloon animals, or doing face-painting for kids. Some buskers. A bunch of people selling produce, a bunch more selling made food, and yet another bunch selling candles, art, crystals, and so on. And masses of humans.

These pictures are all the same size, a sort of bass line. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM, of people.






Again, you can obviously swap in any similar pictures without losing the sense of the theme.

Theme Three: The lawnmower. This thing is rotting on the lawn about three houses down from me. I intend to use it in the latter half of the book, representing as it does a cutting down, a decay, an ending. We start with a mild picture of a wheel, with a strong botanical component to echo Theme One, and end on a rather more dissonant shot of the blades.

In this way I visually prepare for the dissonance, the unpleasant departure from what we've seen up to now. These photos are treated differently, and in the final product I expect each theme to have its own toning and contrast profile, to further clarify the point.





In the final book, this theme will probably be introduced in a spread-out fashion, spacing the pictures out by a couple of pages. I might end the book with a recapitulation of the theme, the same three pictures stacked onto a single page, recto, and then turn the page for a final photo of rain/cloud/storm, the gloom of fall closing in.

In closing, an idea for harmony. Here is a variation of theme one, starting partway through a variation on theme two. Imagine this as three pages in a row.



Why would I do this? For fun, of course! And as a way to pack content into pages, and to be, perhaps, appealing and interesting. To express what it is about the Summer in Bellingham? Or if it doesn't do that, well, at least to be absurdly precious.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Two Books on Photobooks

I recently reviewed, in some sense, Colberg's recent book Understanding Photobooks, and shortly thereafter I had commended to me the book by Swanson and Himes, Publish Your Photography Book. I have now read the second one thanks to the generosity of one of my regular readers (thank you, J!). The copy I have is a first edition, not the newer second edition, so bear that in mind.

While I was expecting these two books to cover roughly the same ground, it is immediately obvious to even the inattentive that the titles do not suggest any such thing. And, indeed, they are quite different books. One might say that they do cover roughly the same ground, but the areas of intense focus are almost completely separate.

Colberg's book is aimed at the Serious Artist who wants a design-forward book, essentially an Artist's Book, but printed on an offset press in an edition of several hundred to a few thousand. His book will be most useful to you if this describes you, but it will remain useful to you unless you are very far indeed from that model.

He covers, briefly, the process by which titles are acquired by publishers, but spends the bulk of the book talking about artist-focused issues. Sequencing and editing, the role of design, the characteristics of various bindings, the kinds of issues that arise relevant to the artist in printing, and so on. He talks about marketing, a little bit, but perhaps a little more about markets.

On the other hands, Swanson and Himes are more broadly focused. Their target readers are anyone who wants to publish a book of photgraphs, from the Colberg set to the people who want to make a giant beautiful coffee table book to the entomologist who wants to publish his exhaustive library of focus-stacked bee photographs for his colleagues. Their book is roughly equally useful to all within that spectrum. While the list of topics covered is roughly the same as Colberg's list (with the exception of sequencing and editing -- S&H offer almost nothing on this topic) S&H is much more focused on How To Get Published.

They provide a breakdown of the various roles within a publishing house, they give you worksheets and timelines. They offer detailed suggestions on how to contact a publisher, how to find the right publishers. They give a list of publishers' web sites. They break down, in rather more detail than does Colberg, the nuts and bolts of acquisition, development, manufacture, and sales of photobooks. They also have a somewhat more open view, possibly because they're reporting on a somewhat earlier time, but also surely because they're talking about a broader range of publishers. Where Colberg cautions against one thing (using PoD books for dummies, say), S&H might treat that as a perfectly reasonable choice to approach many publishers with. Both might well be perfectly true within their relevant domains.

Both books emphasize some of the same things. Both are adamant that concept is vital, it is the starting point. Both emphasize the utility of working with physical prints, and physical dummies.

Both are wonderfully vague about how much you, the neophyte artist, can be expected to cough up in up front costs.

As a separate remark, the actual design and construction of the books differs greatly. Normally I don't care about this, but these are after all books about books, so it is perhaps fair to make this comparison. Colberg's book, as noted, feels cheap, and has at least on substantial design flub (white text on a light grey background). Swanson and Himes book, on the other hand, is beautiful, feels luxurious and expensive, and is much better designed. You could argue that they got carried away with white space, I guess, but that adds to the feeling of luxury. The page counts are similar, but the S&H book is twice as thick with only 10% more pages.

S&H uses a fairly heavy page stock, while Colberg's book uses a light, almost magazine weight, stock. Which is, honestly, kind of yuck.

I think Colberg has more words in his book, although the sizes are similar, but S&H give you a much broader range of extended quotations and discussions from a wider variety of industry players. While Colberg gives us a collection of breakdowns of book designs as inserted sections, S&H give us a inserted sections from industry players -- publishers, authors, designers, and so on.

S&H does, after a fashion, echo Colberg's book analyses with a separate chapter of case studies, but their cases are clearly more mainstream books than the ones Colberg highlights.

The S&H book is clearly a useful resource if your mission is to get published. Colberg's book is clearly inferior as a resource if that's what you're looking for. If you want to know how to make a book Colberg has a great deal more information, and might have enough to get you started on the job of actually getting published.

From the books I have read, the perfect combination is surely Keith A. Smith's Structure of the Visual Book together with Swanson and Himes Publish your Photography Book. I would swap in Colberg's Understanding Photbooks in place of Smith's book if you're not much interested in expanding your mind on sequencing and what might be a book. If you have a pretty clear idea of what you want to accomplish, and you're happy to simply depend on a good designer, and you're not looking to make a full-on Artist's Book style of object, Colberg will probably suit you fine. Smith can be slightly heavy going at times.

This, though, is the conundrum. The artists that Colberg wants to talk to most are precisely the ones that probably ought to read Smith instead.

All three books are about the same price, I think. Something like $US30 plus or minus a bit.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Khadija Saye

Khadija Saye was a young photographer killed in the Grenfell Tower fire. There has been an outpouring of grief in the photographic community, with dozens, perhaps 100s, of retweets of the "such a loss, so sad" form.

Interestingly, this vast outpouring of grief generally just copies (automatically?) the same handful of tintypes from a recent show of her work someplace.

I am going to go on the record and say this: I had never heard of her, and I do not believe that most of the grievers had either. In general, they cannot be buggered to even google her and see if she did anything except these tintypes. Even the online "press" (PetaPixel, PDNOnline) simply copies the same pictures. You have to go to her obit on BJP's web site (or, you know, her own damn web site) to see if she did anything else.

I offer no grief here, beyond the general sense that it is always a tragedy when a life is cut short, whether that life had promise or not. Was she destined for greatness? I do not know, and it does not matter. The tragedy is the same whether she was to be the darling of the Fine Art set, or a grocer.

I will say that she did some interesting pictures. Here is her web site. I commend to you especially the Eid project, which works, for me, on several levels. I don't know anything about it. It appears to be a religious gathering, and also a gathering of people from perhaps a shared culture, and also a beautiful study of color. Saye could see, she could edit, she could sequence.

Note the colors of the carpets, of the robes (religious?), of the "street clothes", and on the floor itself. Perhaps this group of people just happens to use the same color palette for everything, but even so, that in itself is a nice observation.

I think her use of color, and her observations of contemporary African-descended peoples, are both much more interesting than some staged tintypes of.. well, of we know not what, honestly, other than the line or two about "migration of traditional Gambian spiritual practices" which really tells us nothing.

But your opinion may differ. Regardless of any considerations of your opinion and mine, she at least deserves our attention to all her work if we are to attend to her at all.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Putting the Depth Back

Susan Sontag argued, long ago, that the photograph replaces reality in our mind. Sally Mann echoed this in much more recent book, remarking that where there are photographs, her memories are of the photographs rather than the people. Darren Campion over on his excellent blog spent a little time thinking about Sontag (part 1, part 2) and makes the claim that Sontag is a little too obsessed, and that photography need not do this, that this is just one common way in which photography behaves.

Me? I kind of think it's baked in to photography and the human psyche. It strikes me as basic. It's possible that I am just slavishly doing my best to agree with Sally Mann, though. Anyways, that hardly matters. The point is that photography frequently does behave in this way. The photograph of the thing frequently replaces the thing itself in our mental space.

This is somehow related to Equivalents, although it's not the same thing, but that's not where I am going today.

Consider the "primitive man" to use a no-doubt almost criminal expression. It's so much handier than "humans living long ago, pre-technology, in smaller communities more closely integrated with the world around them" though. These people did indeed live in closer contact to their world. Their worlds were far far smaller than ours, in some meaningful way, and they lived in that world largely without the help of Media. In those communities, a few of which still exist, the answers to the most trivial questions can be infinitely complex, because these people often perceive far more of the interrelated nature of things. The see the web of cause and effect, or relationship, that extends infinitely far in space and time. Where there are gaps, they gloss over with a god or a sprite, but often they have a far more nuanced and detailed understanding of their little worlds.

The modern world is vast. Not just geographically. We have medicine, science, space, planets, other nations, other cultures, machines, and creatures from far away, all available to be understood. After a fashion. To make sense of it all for us, we have the Media, broadly construed. We have handy books and television shows and web features that will tell us about why WWI started (the assassination of the Archduke, of course!) and which will boil damn near anything else we care to learn about down to simple causes and tiny soundbites.

It is inevitable. The world is too vast to be grasped in anything like the way an aboriginal person of 500 years ago might grasp the relationships between certain plants and animals in her environment. We actually need simple explanations for things. "It's Trump's Fault" or Obama's, May's, Merkel's, or Modi's. In fact, this is basically never true. Anything we might conceivably blame on Trump is surely the result of 100s of actions by 100s of players, at least. Trump, at best, it the most recent and most influential of a cast that has been working on this plotline since the beginning of time.

This, incidentally, is why anarchy won't work. People haven't any interest in returning to the narrow, simple, worlds of the past. Burn the media down, and the people will instantly construct another one. We demand simple answers and a complex world. Someone is certain to step up with the answers for us, and as soon as you have a Media, you'll have all the rest of it in short order.

Alright then. The media is an inevitable product of modernity, as well as a supporting structure of it. Photography with its special characteristics is integrated fully into the media, along with everything else. Photography is one of many modes which provides simple answers. It replaces deep understanding, and memory, with the simple picture that shows us The Truth (as whoever is in charge at the moment wishes us to understand it).

I've written a few times about various notions like trame and network, suggesting that Good Photographs should at any rate hint at the external world they're drawn from. I think one might usefully re-frame these remarks as suggesting that the photograph -- while it will inevitably do its dire work of replacing memory -- ought to at any rate replace memory with something that has the same connections outwards to reality as the real memory would have.

The photobook, the essay, can do this far better even than a single photo. If Gene Smith's Minamata does nothing else, it teaches us that this is possible.

My understanding of the tragedies of Minamata is not the real understanding. I cannot grasp it in the way the people who lived it do, nor in the way the later generations living with the outcomes do, nor even in the way a Japanese citizen grasps it. Mine is further removed, mediated through this book. The book, however, by its design, does not encyst a version of The Truth into a neat little package, a small world unto itself. The book, by its design, remains connected to the messy, interconnected reality.

While it would be better, um, in some sense, for me to understand Minamata first-hand, that is impossible. I am the wrong age, in the wrong place, of the wrong parents. A mediated understanding is all that I can have. Better, I think, a mediated understanding of this sort than the other sort, or none at all.

This permits me both the larger world of modernity, with the necessity of Media and therefore Mediation, without the grotesque fallacy of the pat answer, the nifty package of false Truth.

This, I think, is something to strive for.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Photobook as Equivalent

If you've spent any time knocking around the history of photography, you've probably run into Stieglitz's "Equivalents", these pictures of clouds that he claimed were "equivalent" to some emotional state, or something like that. Minor White went on at some length about this idea of "Equivalent", and seems to have considered it fundamental to photography, or at least to the photography he thought worthwhile. It has something to do with the idea that the photograph represents real things, but that upon viewing it evokes something quite different in the viewer. I think it's more than an evocation, though, it is that the viewer seems the picture as a symbol, an embodiment, of what the viewer feels. There is, in short, something like equivalence, natch.

Anyways, this is one of those concepts that has always felt a bit dodgy to me. I've never seen anyone write about it in anything like a clear fashion, which is rarely a good sign.

Minor White seems to think that, whatever it is, it might be pretty personal, pretty subjective (rather than intersubjective!). Everyone might get something different out. White also seems to subscribe to the theory that only some people can do it, that you might need to be specially attuned, or specially trained in order for an Equivalent to work. I find this notion to always be pretty offensive and useless. Art is bullshit if you need to go to night school to "get" it.

So what am I on about with the Photobooks?

When I look at a picture, I can kind of fill in a world the picture lives in from my imagination and experience. I imagine, at least a little, what's outside the frame, what happened before and after. So I fill out things "horizontally", but there's also a "vertical" filling-in. I react to that "horizontally" expanded view of the picture. I might have some emotional response, I might enlarge my mind on a good day, all that sort of thing. However you put it, even a crappy picture probably ripples outwards in several dimensions in my mind. Whether that's an "equivalent" or not, I can't say, but it certainly happens.

Let's suppose that a functioning "Equivalent" is one where that multi-dimensional space of mental ripples is roughly related to what the photographer had in mind, and that the photograph reads as some sort of symbolic representation of those ripples, rather than simply a thing that kicked the ripples off.

I visualize a photograph as a sort of grappling hook the photographer throws toward that whole complicated mental space, hoping perhaps to hit more or less near a specific spot. Weston seems to want to hit the "sex" part of my brain, which is a bit of a cheat because, let's be honest, it's a huge target.

A portfolio gives the photographer many casts of the hook. The idea can become clearer, there's a much better chance of a portfolio of work doing that "Equivalent" thing, surely, whatever it is.

A photobook is one step farther, since it allows the artist to shape the relationship between the photographs. Consider Keith Smith's notion of the book as, really, a single composite picture built up in the viewer's mind by reading the book, present and complete only after finishing the book. The book, considered this way, is perhaps a single cast of a gigantic grappling hook, ideally so large that it cannot help but get a piece of whatever the artist is aiming for.

Of course, it is also multiple casts of the hook, like a portfolio. So, in a way, it gives the artist several different ways to hit the mark.

It's a rough idea at the moment, but I might almost believe in the possibility of a book (or book-like object) of photos behaving as an Equivalent, in a pretty general and accessible way.