Saturday, September 30, 2017

Book Design Notes III

Revisit parts I and parts II if you like.

Charging in to the coda. I had this motif of a lawnmower, this sort of trashed instance of one of those old hand-powered reel mowers that the neighbors a couple doors down use to occasionally whack at their lawn, more or less in futility. I had a bunch of photos of this thing, and it seemed to fit with a sort of ending idea, so I grabbed two of them, toned them a bit purplish and dark, and tried them out.

The first iteration was basically this:

Bluntly, this sucks. The idea is that the blank pages show that matrix of morning glory picturelets having gone away entirely, but it's too white, too much blank space after the more visually/design rich central part of the book. The pictures are simply not strong enough to carry a blank page.

I tried the pictures facing one another, I tried a blank spread to separate things. The bottom line was that there needed to be more visual complexity on the page, the previous pages with the background of morning glory material was simply too much to drop suddenly. I could revisit that, or I could invent a way to make the coda similarly rich/complex.

Back to the drawing board. I conceived the idea, after a while, of recapitulating the growth of the morning glory in a more organic, fall-themed way. This time the small elements would be "blown" off the side of the page.

Happily, fall is more or less here, so I was able to collect a bunch of yellowed leaves and suchlike and I photographed the on white, compositing them together to make three spreads, like this (imagine these as full bleed, blogspot is going to stick a white border around them, but the leaves will go to the page-edge):

My original thought was to desaturate these, to make them read as very dully colored, but I forgot, and when I popped the full color pictures into the book I liked it. So there's this strange splash of color at the back. Finally, I placed the mower pictures on there, and wrapped up with my last photo. The final four spreads looking like this:

The last shot was a horrible screwup, a marvelous grab shot of a young woman with whom I have a "I think I recognize you" mutual relationship based on buying coffee here and there. She saw me photographing her and smiled cheerfully, but I botched the focus. She's so very very Bellingham, though, that I wanted to find a place for her, and here it is.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Novelty and Repetition

Mulling over my previous remarks, I find myself considering the questions of repetition and of novelty. Also, I hate myself for saying "narrative" over and over but dammit, it's the word that works.

It's tempting to think equate opening a new Narrative with a piece of art with novelty and in a sense it's true. It's literally true, but the word novelty comes freighted with connotations. To my eye, something is novel if you note it first, or primarily, because of its newness. If the first thing you notice about a photograph is how new it is, then the art-like experience of learning and growing is already compromised.

My sense is that really good work does not strike one first as new but as interesting, and that it is only after a while you realize that this is something new, these are thoughts, ideas, viewpoints that you have not had previously. This does not prevent many an artist from aggressively pursing the novel, it's much easier than the interesting.

Which brings us around to repetition. What if I have had these thoughts, these ideas, these views previously? Is there no art-like experience here?

I think the answer is that it depends.

Suppose I saw some gallery show or book 10 years ago that blew my mind. It was wonderful, amazing, so very very art-like. Consider two possibilities:

In the first scenario, these ideas and experiences blew up. They're dominated part of my world, they've become thoroughly embedded in my consciousness, they've become integral in some sense. Seeing a new show that covers the same ground in the present day could well be tedious. "But that's the dominant narrative now, you're just repeating what we all know!"

You might say that in this case the starling murmuration turned, at least my part of it and the new show is simply flying in obedient formation.

In the second scenario, the ideas do not take over. My mind, expanded ten years ago, contracts. Those doors gradually close through disuse. Now the same new show reopens them, and I remember, "Oh my god, yes. Where did this stuff go? Why isn't it everywhere?!!"

In this scenario, the murmuration did not turn, and this lone bird finds itself (again) trying to fly in a new direction.

Note that I am conflating the individual experience with the collective one. So it goes with Art, all our experiences are individual, but when things are working well we're having similar enough experiences to make the group's experience more or less shared.

But then I ask myself, is that all? Is there not some room for flying with the murmuration, but nonetheless making something art-like? Certainly almost all of the photographs and other art produced are doing exactly this, and it is surely unfair of me to dismiss the lot as Not Art. I've had it somewhat forcefully proposed to me that Art might be large enough to contain things which are simply beautiful, which have aesthetic value regardless of starlings and their flight paths.

I don't know. That last bit sounds right, but I cannot quite buy it as is. It remains on the shelf, tempting me, but I haven't yet but it in my cart.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Transgression, Novelty, and Good Art

Jörg Colberg's most recent essay over on CPHMag has gotten at least one of my commenters a little baffled, along with me. His thesis seems to be that transgression is necessary to make Art, or at any rate good art. He does not say, note, that transgression is sufficient. Thankfully. At the same time, our old friend Ming Thein has a post up asserting that novelty is the thing. His claim is that novelty is what inspires us to make pictures, but he implies that it's also a driving force behind making them good pictures.

Both of them are, I will argue, wrong. Both of them have a sniff at the right thing, though. They're close, or in the right neighborhood.

Before we go any further I will point you to an example. It's a horrid despicable project which you can google if you're interested, I refuse to link to it. The key words are Cannonball Kids Cancer, No More Options. The conceit of the project is that people who have recently lost someone (a friend, a child) to childhood cancer are asked to write a letter to the dead child, and to read it out loud. Then, when they're good and weepy, the aptly named Dick Johnson, no, wait, he's actually named Rich, takes a portrait of the victim. The is, ostensibly, to raise awareness, raise some money, blah blah.

You're uncomfortable with this project, but perhaps you cannot quite put your finger on why. I mean, obviously it's exploitation, but it's all voluntary and for a good cause, right? Colberg would note, surely, that it's transgressive. It's bloody well abusive.

Well, here's the thing. These portraits don't actually say anything new, there's no artlike quality to them. They say simply that childhood cancer is bad, which we knew, and maybe they raise a few dollars which, while good, could surely be done without savagely abusing the people who have recently lost a loved one.

Obviously Rich is just trotting out award-bait. He's got a history of this kind of shit, if you poke around his aptly named (I am not lying this time) Spectacle Photography web site. He likes to trot out this kind of "confronting hard truths, raising awareness" thing, and it's obviously aimed to promote Rich's brand.

The trouble with Rich, other than "he's horrible," is that he's simply repeating the Official Narrative, to borrow from my previous remarks. It's chic and populist, and it will get attention and awards, but it's not Art, and it's not particularly valuable. Exploitation of this sort without any particular value is despicable. In fact, let me remind you that the setup is explicitly designed to make people cry, so that they could be photographed in tears, and that Johnson ran some little kids through his mill of horrors, and photographed them after they read their "letter to Nolan". Hang on one sec:

Rich Johnson, you're a fucking monster and you deserve the strongest censure for executing this ghastly idea.

Let's back up a bit and find the common thread that I swear is in here someplace.

Art, if it does anything, enbiggens us. It shows us something new, it opens our brains, it makes us rethink, revisit, reevaluate. It makes us grow.

In order for a photograph or a group of photographs to accomplish this, it has to have a message of its own, a new message, a new narrative. One we have not seen, at any rate. Colberg has it partly right, in that transgression is a way to accomplish that -- by elucidating a message that is counter to the Official Narrative(s), a piece of Art has a shot at saying something new, something which enlarges the viewer. Thein also has it partly right, novelty is a route to the same, or can be.

Both miss the point. The message, the narrative merely need be its own thing, its own enlarging vision. You can take pictures of apples if you can make them speak in a new way about apples, or fruit, or capitalism.

Rich Johnson shows us that merely being transgressive does not guarantee anything new. He's simply repeating the same "cancer is awful, please give money because death makes people sad" narrative that has been with us since before recorded history. Thein's novelty often shows us much the same pictures as everything else, because what is novel to him may not be novel to anyone else. Indeed, his illustration is perfect. We have all seen, ad infinitum, photographs depicting the sensual pleasures of inhaled narcotics. The fact that his friend has taken up vaping may be novel to Ming, but it's boring as shit to everyone else. More importantly, "Inhaling Narcotics is a Sensual Pleasure" is not exactly a new and exciting message. We're been hearing this from vendors of inhaled narcotics for 100+ years.

My initial thought was that, in order to be interesting, the "Narrative" in your art had to defy the conventional, the standard, narrative(s). Upon reflection, I came to the conclusion that it need not. It need merely diverge from those Official Narratives, and find its own way. This, conveniently, allows my own pictures to be awesome, but I think also makes a logical sense. To enlarge the viewer you need not overturn the Official Narrative, although you may, you need only say something different from it.

Which doesn't exactly lead us around to the last bit, which is Colberg's weird comment on portraits.

"if you want to make portraits for an art context, there can be no collaboration when the portrait is made"

Honestly I spent some time trying to imagine some innocent typo that could have produced this, but I cannot find one. Colberg appears to genuinely think this, which makes absolutely no sense. Cindy Sherman's work consists almost entirely of collaborative portraits, and while you might not like her, it's pretty goddamned hard to deny her claim to be making Art.
I think he's just gone slightly off the rails pushing his theme of transgression as a necessary component of Art Photography, and can't quite wrap his head around collaboration plus transgression? But even if we stipulate that he's right about transgression, this still makes no sense, and he does not elaborate on it. So, I am just plain lost at this point.

I do see what he's reaching for with transgression, though.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Representation and Interpretation

I struggled with this topic for days and days and finally came up with the right image, scrubbed all the half-assed text I had, and started over with brand new half-assed text.

Imagine, if you will, a murmuration of starlings. We might just as well think of other flocks, a vast shoal of fish, and so on, but I prefer the romance of the starling. In this enormous configuration we have a gigantic number of birds moving more or less as one. Each starling follows the others, and yet each one, we might imagine, also leads in a small way. Each bird is a part of the whole, mostly following, but also contributing to the leadership, to setting the direction. Importantly, each bird is part of the structure, and also a follower of the structure, and also a leader of the structure.

In the same way our culture is like a murmuration of, well, of stuff. Of Art, and novels, and tweets, and conversations over beer. Our culture is not only made up of these things, but also is directed by these things.

Consider a photograph of a rose. Allow me to press back into the traces that exhausted word "narrative" and talk about Narratives of The Rose. It's an emblem of beauty, and of love, in our western world. If I photograph it in soft backlight, with tiny droplets of dew on its petals, I repeat that Standard Narrative. I amplify it every so slightly by the repetition. My photograph, my starling, is at that moment simply following the flock swooping off in the current direction. Not everyone will love my repetition of that narrative, the recently jilted may reject that story of Love and Beauty. Your personal opinion may diverge from the Standard Narrative, or with my repetition of it.

If I choose to photograph the rose crushed into the mud, surrounded by mud, I defy the Standard Narrative, somehow. My starling is pushing in its tiny singular way in a different direction. Will the murmuration turn? Probably not.

A skilled propagandist, seizing control of a critical handful of the starlings, and picking precisely the right moment can turn the murmuration, pivoting around a tree, a hill, or a change in air pressure, into a new direction. Perhaps not the one the propagandist chose, but at any rate one that suits him well enough.

A friend of mine spent some time on his blog trying to untangle some issues surrounding portrayals of Africa in Tinytin comics, and the statue "The Footsoldier of Birmingham" (he approves of the latter, disapproves of the former, as do I). The Africans in Tintin are silly caricatures, bug-eyed golliwogs, lazy, and so on. In its time, this portrayal was a starling following the flock. Hergé was no more responsible for negative stereotypes of Africa than I am, but he did follow them, he did in his small way amplify them. But, Tintin is not the murmuration, it is but one starling.

Remove Tintin from its time, and it is a lone starling, flying through, well, not an empty sky, but a rather more thinly populated one. There is no murmuration any longer, although there are rather too many lone starlings. Tintin flies against the mainstream narratives today, in this way. Is it harmless? Not entirely, but it is still just one little bird.

My children will read Tintin, it is my job to ensure they know that Africa is rather more complex than that, it is a vast region of 54 countries (at least) and 100s of different cultures, none of which have particularly large eyes, and none of which are congenitally lazy.

"The Footsoldier of Birmingham" is an interesting case. The actual incident on which it is based appears to have almost nothing to do with the apparent message. A young black man was leaving the scene of a protest, of which he was not a part, and bumped a policeman. The policeman's dog was startled, and the cop restrained the dog from getting all up on the young man.

A photo was taken, which allowed a different reading, namely that the cop was siccing a vicious dog on a helpless young man. This photo, in its time, was a starling flying against the murmuration. It suggested a brutal, racist, cop in a time when the Standard Narrative of cops was as good guys, not thugs. This photo, along with a wide collection of other material, belongs to that great turn in the murmuration that is America, which turn we know as the Civil Rights Movement.

The statue, loosely based on the photo (bur further amplifying the message of the Thuggish Cop, the Innocent Boy, and the Vicious Dog) dates from the 1990s, and rather than flying against the Standard Narrative is in fact flying entirely with the current (new, post Civil Rights Movement) narrative. By analogy, it is just another tedious backlit rose, sightly amplifying the long-standing Standard Story.

In all these cases, we have the objective reality which is arguably not a cultural artifact at all. We also have representations of that, which may or may not align with the underlying reality.

In turn, these representations represent "narratives" which may or may not align with a) the current Standard Narrative or b) our personal opinions. Art that does not align with the Standard Narrative is often a lot more interesting, but beware of defiance for defiance's sake.

And finally these representations in their alignments may or may not take part in some subtle change in direction of either the Standard Narrative (i.e. they may become part of vast turn of the murmuration-of-culture) or in your personal opinion (they may "reach you" in some important way).

Everyone who makes Art seriously knows that weird sensation of working with waldos that merely work the controls of other waldos and so on, hoping to somehow, at some great remove, make some kind of goddamned difference. And yet, frequently, when we look at Art (particularly Art with which we disagree) we are wont to ascribe vast power to it.

Hergé was working with the same set of waldos working other waldos that we all are, Tintin is not bottled purified, bottled, fascism waiting to spring forth and corrupt our society. Neither are my little books purified, bottled socialism, waiting to spring out and bring forth Paradise on Earth. They're all just starlings.

Watch out for murmurations, though.

CPHMag Fundraiser

For those few of you who may not already know, Colberg's got a fundraiser for CPHMag.

Personally, I am uncomfortable with this. I have a knee-jerk adverse reaction to cyber-begging, and it also seems to me that CPHMag is a part of Jörg's "brand" from which he is already deriving, presumably, a living. He does, after all, teach in an MFA program on the very subject of his web site. This strikes me as different from, say, ToP's funding efforts - Mike's web site is his livelihood, turning it in to money and thence food is right up front, it is the point.

If money was not tight this year, I might kick in a few bucks anyways. Were I actually opposed to Jörg's fundraising, I would have remained silent. Do as you will, of course!

Saturday, September 23, 2017

PSA/Misogyny Followup

Michael Zhang of PetaPixel got back to me after I told him I was going to stop submitting content for consideration, and we had a nice conversation.

In short, PetaPixel is a tiny tiny operation and simply does not have the resources to moderate the comment threads (which is what I had assumed), but Michael and his tiny staff are interested in hearing about inappropriate comments. The correct action is to use the Report feature of the disqus comment system (which is what PP uses) and then the staff will see these comments and -- at their discretion -- do something about it.

They seem pretty ruthless about outright banning people. I assume their attitude is that they have a million readers (literally) and they can afford to pretty much execute readers without warning pretty much full time pretty much all day without making a dent.

So, Report Vile Comments.

I will be sending content PetaPixel's way on my usual very very occasional schedule. Also, I will be reporting inappropriate comments with some vigor. Off and on.

And that's enough about that. I am ruminating on the role of interpretation in Art-making, propaganda, photography, and will deliver some tedious overlong philosophical ramble in due course. Promise!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Book Design Notes II

In an earlier posting, I wrote out some stuff on my work in progress, working title Bellingham Summer showing some ideas for the introductory material. That has evolved, a little, and I think I have a handle on it.

Next up is the core of the book, 20 or so pictures that, I think, nail down something of the essence of what I see as Summer in Bellingham, up here on the 49th parallel, where the days are very long in summer, and very short in winter (the British, of course, are very familiar with this, as are the northern Europeans -- I understand that the approved coping mechanism in winter is to Drink and Complain, both of which I feel fairly adept with).

After due consideration and winnowing down, I found that I have no special needs in this central section. There was no particular reason for pacing, recapitulation, anything fancy. It's just a group of pictures. So, the goal of sequencing here became simply to make it look structured, organized. I spent some time categorizing things, and rediscovered the specific list of things that I had first identified as representing Summer in Bellingham:

I looked for geometrical coincidences, and without really looking for it, I found one pretty decent visual joke. Well. Let's be honest, visual jokes are, at best, about as good as a lousy pun, but this one's that good.

I also worked up a look, one that I have used in the past, roughly. Essentially, high contrast, firm blacks, and a heavy vignette. The intent here is a hallucinatory, dreamlike, flavor. Which is indeed what I am going for, I see summer here as a slightly crazed and altogether too brief experience. We're all sleep deprived from the light, and frantic to get in enough Summering to carry us through the chilly, wet, cloudy winter. Summer here is glorious, it's sunny, it's warm without being too hot. The area is beautiful, filled with natural wonder and rushing water. There's a lot to get done in the few months of summer. And the days are very very long indeed at the height of it.

The pictures look kind of like this:

I didn't kill myself over structure. The aim was purely to avoid jarring juxtapositions as far as possible (keep the Kids a few pages removed from the Topless March) and to exploit whatever relationships seemed obvious to impose a sort of order. Here are some spreads.

This is the joke, the second spread immediately follows the first:

The central content of the book opens with the Wisteria, as I suggested in the first post of this series, to connect with the foliage theme of the intro. The next spread, though, is this kid-themed spread. (note foliage recto to provide some loose link to that Wisteria):

We move on through another page or two of kid-related material, and after a while end up here. This is essentially a geometrical relationship, although there's also a "boys vs. girls" thing, and the people are all college aged, more or less:

The coda is still giving me a little trouble. I have boiled it down to two pictures of a lawnmower, but they frankly look stupid sitting there in a sea of white. I've toned them slightly, to separate them from the main content, and I have an idea for recapitulating the growth pattern behind the main content in a more organic way, to imply fall, to carry the main body of the book into the coda while still indicating a clear change of mood and idea, and then the close.

I have one last picture on the end, a flashback of sorts, printed very faint, which I visualize verso opposite the end paper.

Once I have the coda worked out, I will post a third and final set of remarks, and most likely a link to the finished book so you can buy it yourself! Assuming, of course, that the wheels do not fall off.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

PSA: Misogyny in Photography

In my general perambulations around the internets, I routinely run across little nests of misogynists. For example, recently one photographer posted an ocean sunset in a forum I peek in to from time to time, entitled "Main reason why I go to the beach". Predictably, some idiot posted a photo of a woman's butt two hours later, leading a lot of "hurr hurr right on man". I like women's butts just fine, but I recognize that context is relevant. This sort of behavior in a context in which women are intended to feel comfortable, welcome, and in which they ought to and can reasonably expect to is obviously unacceptable behavior.

Similarly, there's been some poisonous discussion across the internet about the Nikon ad which featured 32 male photographers and 0 female photographers.

I don't even want to get in to a discussion of the rights and wrong here, I don't want to get into a round of explaining the facts, or trying to channel the Woman's Experience, etc. It's not necessary to get in that deep.

I just want to point out that, for christ's sake, it's 2017. On what planet can your dumbshit "hurr hurr" make women feel welcome? And on and on with all the standard BS responses that troglodyte men drag out. Don't these guys hope some day to touch a woman? I mean, it could happen, if they changed... everything about themselves.

Anyways. I can't figure out how to pressure PetaPixel (which hosts some seriously virulent comment threads) because they use a 3rd party comment handling service, as well as using an ad network for supplying advertisements. Conveniently, everything is divorced from everything else. I can figure out how to stick it to The Photo Forum (which has irritated me in the past for other reasons) because they have specific sponsors. I present for your amusement two samples threads from that forum:

Nikon Picked 32 Men
Main reason why I go to the beach.

which are surely not anything like the nastiest things on the internet, but equally surely will make any female photographer seeking help on the internet feel at least a little uncomfortable.

Here is a list of the sponsors, as indicated on the front page. For all I know it's out of date, these guys are pretty disorganized:

Precision Camera and Video, Austin, TX.
Camera Land, Inc. Sports Optics. New York
Pixel HK (the web site seems dead, I have no idea if these guys even exist)
Lee Filters

Do with this information what you like. Personally, I have contacted each of these vendors to let them know that I won't be using their services. You might choose to cancel my vote, and promise to use their services! It's a big world, with room for many opinions. Mine is that misogyny in general audience photography circles needs to get stepped on, pretty hard.

It's one thing to bitch about women and post butt pictures on Pick Up Artist web sites, with all the other basement dwellers, I got no problem with that. It's quite another to go mucking about in public.

Back to regularly scheduled photography stuff in the next post, promise.

ETA: I have decided what to do for PetaPixel as well. Occasionally I supply them with an article, and I will be writing Michael Zhang a note today explaining that I cannot supply any more until I see a firmer hand moderating the more poisonous comment threads. They won't miss me, it won't really hurt them, but it's a stand I can take and it's possible that Michael will think it over a little. My boycott of an Austin camera shop isn't going to hurt them either, really. The point is to get people to think about it.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Making Books has made me a Better Photographer

It occurred to me yesterday, as I was obsessively ruminating about books and photobooks and so on, that making books has made me a better photographer. Obviously not in any technical sense, I still struggle with the vagaries of AIS lenses on an ancient consumer body (you have to set it OFF manual mode to focus, and back ON manual mode to shoot, and I am constantly getting lost on the dial and can't find M without looking).

It probably hasn't made my better at composition, although perhaps a little. More focused, certainly.

What it has done, obviously, is that it has caused me to shoot far fewer pointless pictures.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, at least as expressed by Colberg (but he is not alone) I do not start with a finished photographic project, and then do a book. Instead, I have ideas for projects floating around my head: A typology of alleys, Found texts, Bellingham Summer, and so on. I also have vague notions of design and structure floating around: Big, Small, Dos-à-dos binding, french door binding, A stapled zine, A magazine, etc.

These things bounce around my head. Sometimes I shoot a few pictures, sometimes I experiment with some paper, thread, and glue. Every now and then a design/structure idea collides with a photo project idea, and I begin something in earnest. You've seen a little of the Bellingham Summer project, which was just a gibberish handful of pictures until the design ideas started to arrive. The medium is probably an 8x10 blurb trade paperback.

With a mental sketch of the completed book in mind, the pictures begin to almost shoot themselves. Everything from preferred framing to specific themes is clarified. Actual pictures, of course, influence the structure of the book, and the whole thing organically distills itself into the right thing. Ideally. Not always.

What this process seems to do is to eliminate the horrible "open brief" problem that we amateurs are cursed with. We can shoot literally anything, and the more constraints we can get hold of, the better we're going to be most likely. The book, having far more structure than a gallery show (real or virtual), grants me far more constraints. I can shoot with real purpose, I can look for specific shots, specific subjects treated in specific ways. I still throw a lot away, but my hit rate goes up like crazy toward the end of a project as I nail down the last couple of things I need or want.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

iPhone X and Digital Lighting

There's a feature tucked away in the new iPhones that doesn't seem to be getting a lot of traction, but it represents a massive sea change in photography. It's the "Portrait Lighting" mode, and it's the second shot across the bows of traditional photography, from the world of computational photography.

The first shot was "fake bokeh" in which the 3D map generated by a dual (or multiple) camera is used to generate background blur, to simulate the look of contemporary fast lens portraiture. This was widely derided for a few minutes, and then improved, and now it's pretty much accepted. A few holdouts still mock it, but normal people can't really tell the difference.

This next shot is a much much bigger one. With the 3D map the only thing preventing doing photographic lighting in post is available compute power. This is exactly what Portrait Lighting mode does. In effect, it digitally alters the lighting of a portrait to make it closer to a professional lighting style. It's not perfect, and I am sure the internet will mock it roundly when it gets around to it, "looks so fake", "lame", "a professional would totally do it better", all of which may be true. This is not a technology that is going to get worse over time, though. It's going to get better.

When I wrote about this two years ago, I imagined a virtual studio for the professional photographer, with virtual lights placed and moved as needed, after the shot was taken, and the final results rendered as a standard 2D image for retouching. Apple has done me one better and worked out how to consumer-ize it. Rather than moving virtual lights around Apple simply offers a handful of styles, treating it like an Instagram filter. Pick the lighting style that makes you look best! Click click, "that one, yeah."

There's room for both, though, it's just software.

It's not even hard! This isn't even an iPhone, this is me and my rough knowledge of how my own ugly mug is shaped. Original, drop catchlights, shade in shadow, shade in highlights, and finally drop in new catchlights.

What does this mean for photographers? For the amateur it means more power, more flexibility, and potentially more fun. It's simply easier to take ever nicer looking pictures.

For the professional it means that your skill at positioning lights is gradually going to vanish as a differentiator -- if you can't direct your models well, learn how, because that's about to become the only skill that isn't being replaced by a robot.

For the photojournalist, and more importantly for the news editor, it means one more layer of potential falsehood inserted between reality and the printed page, the digital news feed. Think about what features you're going to want o disallow in future.

I can't even imagine what it means for Fine Art photographers.

It seems like a stupid little "selfie-mode stupidity" feature, but it's not. It's our second hint of a radically different future.

A Note

This is a post of mine from slightly less than 2 years ago: A Device.

In it I remarked that synthetic lighting was going to be a new feature enabled by computational photography.

Please note that the iPhone X introduces synthetic lighting features as a consequence of its computational photography package.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Colberg on Art

Jörg has another thoughtful piece up, a welcome relief from his reviews in my opinion. It contains a review, but it's secondary, without being a New Yorker style artifice upon which to hang a bunch of self-aggrandization.

I'm going to provide a handful of definitions, basically because I had to look all these words up. I mean, I knew roughly kinda what they meant, but not, you know, the details.
  • agitprop - A portmanteau of "agitation" and "propaganda", essentially propagandist art nominally intended to stir people up.
  • didactic - Intended to teach, specifically a moral lesson.

Jörg starts out well, making the point that Art with a capital A communicates, but often somewhat vaguely, in ways that may be hard to put your finger on. He asserts, correctly I think, that good art and agitprop, if not actually opposites, at any rate tend to be in opposition. Agitprop is clear, it communicates but one message, without much ambiguity (or depth). I suspect Jörg's complaints about didactic/agitprop "art"are more or less squarely directed at Lewis Bush's "It's Gonna Be Great" show, which was just a bunch of "hurr hurr I photoshopped Donald Trump to look like an idiot" material. Boring, stupid, simple repetition of simplistic leftist narratives. You don't have to look very far to find tons of this sort of thing, though, so maybe Jörg had something else in mind.

Then we move onwards to the assertion that the Bechers work was didactic, which I find interesting but am not sure I agree with. What moral lesson are we to learn here? To my eye, the Bechers were simply insisting that certain objects were interesting, without any particular judgement about what's interesting, about what lessons we are to find in these objects. We could project our own ideas, certainly, and I assume they had their own ideas, but ultimately it's just a bunch of pictures of buildings.

But hold on to that. Whether or not the word "didactic" applies is largely irrelevant here. The point is that, at least in my opinion, the Bechers are expressing a simple idea, namely, "these are interesting", without insisting on a specific reading, a specific moral point of view, or really anything of that sort.

Finally we get to the review. The book he reviews, by the way, is $45, which seems truly incredible for a book with this amount of hand work. I almost want it for that alone, except the content is completely uninteresting to me.

This book is didactic. In fact, it is agitprop, despite Colberg's notion that it is not. He is here betraying himself, allowing his weakness for overproduced photobooks to overrule his obviously good sense. He claims that the book functions because of "the surprise" that the pictures in it are not microorganisms, but instead bits of plastic floating in the ocean, which might be OK except that the publisher lacks the strength of character to make it a surprise. The reveal is right there in the blurb.

While the book itself may not insist on a specific moral lesson here, the fact is that it's being published today, now, when the only reasonably interpretation is that it's yet another piece of self-conscious art about how terrible it is that there's a bunch of plastic in the ocean. We may take it as given that the artist thinks we should legislate the use of plastic bags and so on.

There is in fact almost no disagreement about what is surely the central thesis of the book: "plastic bits filling up the ocean is bad." The points of disagreement are entirely about what should be done about it, with one side claiming that the invisible hand of the market will cure this problem as soon as it's done curing every other ill, and the other side saying that we need to legislate and regulate heavily. I side with the latter, but that does not make me love this book.

While I have not seen the book myself, it is transparently a rather twee concept wrapped around a simple repeat of one of the standard pages of leftist political narrative. I don't like Donald Trump, and I disapprove of plastic bits in the ocean, but simply repeating the same stories is just propaganda, and not very effective propaganda at that. Neither "It's Gonna Be Great" nor "Beyond Drifting" are going to create change. Neither are going to connect with their readers in interesting ways. Both are pure preaching to the choir, one with, I admit, production values that appeal far more to me than the other.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Another Nutty Theory

Hasselblad, as we all know, built this weird X1D thing, which is a medium format mirrorless camera, yadda yadda yadda. The lens lineup for this has received some criticism. They lenses are: 30mm, 45mm, and 90mm, which work out as a "moderately wide" a "kinda wide" and a "weird goddamned thing that's either too long or too short for every possible application"

But consider this: the 90mm lens is more or less a normal lens for 645 format, which is the size of the 100 megapixel sensor Hasselblad is using in their biggest and best uberkamera. On that sensor, the lenses are "quite wide", "moderately wide" and "normal" and the lens lineup actually makes a sort of sense.

My theory is that they were hoping to stick the big sensor into the X1D and pulled the trigger on lens designs before they realized that they were going to be using the smaller sensor.

And now they're sort of stuck.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Book Design Notes

I'm working on a book design, about Bellingham's Summer. The first thematic element is one of growth, fecundity, and for that I have a bunch of detail shots of morning glory and sweet pea. The conceit is that these pictures will crawl across the page, expanding like vines, for the first few pages. For "too long" really, encouraging a quickening pace as you leaf through, looking for the "real content" after you get the idea.

After that, these elements become background upon which other material is laid. They become graphical design elements rather than pictorial content, repeated on each page, and then there's some things that happen at the end about which more, perhaps, later.

The preliminary spreads look like this. Sepia-ish toning for an organic flavor.

Page 1:

Pages 2-3:

Pages 4-5:

Pages 6-7:

Pages 8-9:

Pages 10-11:

Note that the pattern recto is complete on page 7, so pages 9 and 11 are simply repeats. I think I want to leave 9 as-is, but begin to bring in the main theme, the primary "content" starting on page 11. These are photographs of things which I think embody certain aspects of the summer in Bellingham, something like this:

Well, bugger. That's obviously a mess. I knew there was going to be a separation problem, of course. I tried some borders and so on, but ugh. Nope, the background has to become quite a bit different. Let's make it much lighter.

That's a BIT better. Throw on a border too and fade that background a little more:

Later pages we'll give the verso the same treatment, and start putting primary content on both sides. The background material will evolve, with bits turning off, and probably an increasing fade, and eventually the whole thing vanishes bottom-upwards as we head into the final end-of-summer theme. In the end, the background is blank, and there's 1 or 2 more pictures to close out summer.

This probably isn't the final final design, but I am closing in on it, I think.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

A Couple of Things from Lewis Bush

First of all, he's doing a book. There's a kickstarter right here. It's not my cup of tea, it's not how I would have approached the material. It lacks any human element, and was pretty obviously put together entirely by screwing around in front of a computer.

On the other hand, it's it most certainly not another instance of My Sad Project. There is nothing in it of Lewis's strained and complex personal relationships, it is not a catalog of his suffering, it is not a journal is his disease. It's arguably a subject of actual weight and interest.

It's also just the right way to assemble this material. While I find a bunch of spectograms and satellite pictures to be remarkably uninteresting, that is certainly just my taste at play. Lewis appears to be assembling a lot of related material, and putting it together into a neat package. The "innovative web platform for the material" sounds a lot like a flashback to 1999, but what can one do, really?

The point is that he's got a subject he's interested in, and he's assembled various visuals, various data and information, and he's putting it together as a completed thing. I would not look down my nose at you if you chose to support his project. I will not be, but that's because it does not suit my taste, not because I think it's crummy.

Second item, Lewis can actually write a thoughtful piece, and proves it for us again over here. It's not earth shattering, but it is thoughtful and, notably, readable.

So, hat tip to Mr. Bush.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Roy Stryker, the FSA/OWI Photos, and the Hole Punch

Roy Stryker ran the great big photography project for the Resettlement Administration (RA), later renamed the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The goal was to document the Problems of Heartland America, although it did rather more. It also celebrated the successes of government programs in Heartland America as well as, sometimes, Coastal America. The project was propaganda, it was aimed to document what was arguably truth, but certainly not the whole truth.

Stryker, for several years, executed his photo editing task with the aid of a hole punch, knocking holes in negatives that did not make the cut.

In recent months there has been a resurgence in the notion that this was a horrid and barbaric practice. The quote that gets passed around, because it appears in the 2009 article about this, is from Edwin Rosskam who was not an FSA photographer, although he was married to one. The quote dates from 1965, 25 years or so after the last hole was punched. Rosskam is against the hole punch, considers it "barbaric."

Let's set a little context.

In the 19th century the idea of a negative that is the underlying canonical representation of a photograph did not exist. Negatives did, to be sure, but many photographs were made as unique objects (tinytypes, calotypes, and so on), or as composites. Until the advent of panchromatic film (1913), you couldn't really shoot a nice looking land+sky picture without compositing, for one thing. Somewhere around the turn of the century the negative becomes truly dominant and that idea that behind every photo there is a negative, which represents the unaltered thing, begins to take shape. Somewhere in here the idea that negatives ought to be squirreled away safely begins to come to the fore.

Since then, we seem to have followed an unwavering trajectory toward increasingly fetishizing the negative. Ansel Adams rambles on more or less endlessly about "archival processing" so that our negatives and prints can last for 100s of years, and this seems to have spawned endless legions of bozos who strive to preserve their pictures. I recall seeing a guy say that he didn't use stop bath, only water, as he felt that the sudden change in pH would hurt the longevity of his negatives. No, he's not a chemist, and yes, his pictures are awful. His negatives are going straight into the trash when his heirs sort out his estate.

And now people buy triple-redundant RAID offsite backup bullshit for their increasing 100s of 1000s of RAW files which they will never look at and never print.

So here we are in the modern world with our idea that every negative must be preserved for eternity, looking back on that one. No surprise that we look back, aghast, at defacing negatives.

Added to the simple fetish material of the thing, there is surely the worry that Stryker, as a professional propagandist, was altering the record to fit his vision. So, let's look and see.

A recent article on petapixel suggests searching the FSA/OWI archive for "Negative has a hole punch" to find the digitized negatives with holes in them. Clicking through to one of them, we note that the archive also has a handy "look at the photos near this one by call number" link, so we can browse around photos from the same roll of film, the same batch of sheets.

Do not confuse this with actual research, this is just me poking at a dozen or so hole-punched pictures:

Holes were mostly punched in dupes, or alternate views of the same scene. Sometimes they seem to be punched in every instance of scenes which add nothing (yet another heap of bricks at the abandoned brick factory, this heap particularly dull). Occasionally these seem to be off-script (a picture of a mansion mixed in which pictures of poor farmers). The last can certainly be construed as altering the record to fit Stryker's narrative, and these pictures do exist.

So, to be clear, Stryker does seem to have altered the record. But perhaps not much.

Let us recall, or perhaps learn for the first time, that Stryker sent his photographers into the field with shooting scripts. He told them, clearly and up front, what story they were to get. For the most part, they went and got that story. Whatever altering of the record Stryker did with the punch was as nothing compared to work he did managing his team. The most obvious off-script negative I stumbled across was in fact clearly "off-script" in a very literal way. It appeared to me as a grab-shot, a personal photo taken on company time, as it were. It was also a jarring, contradictory, fact inserted into a quite different narrative.

So what do we have here?

In context, we have a fairly new idea, perhaps a couple of decades, that the negative is fundamental. It's not at all clear to me where we are in the spectrum of "negatives are disposable plates which we smash when the edition is sold out" and "negatives must be preserved at all costs in bomb-proof vaults", but surely somewhere in the middle, and certainly not in the modern era. We have a guy who's editing out what are, essentially, duplicates and very occasional photographs that he'd instructed against in the first place.

In terms of some sort of basic barbarity, I think the idea of the negative as sacrosanct was present at the time, but relatively weak. Opinions no doubt varied, but it's unlikely that most of the photographers cared all that much. Very little material was actually lost, and often the information lost in the hole can be reconstructed from surrounding frames. Not always, but often.

Also, I think that the idea of the sacrosanct negative is stupid. I am always somewhat relieved when a computer accident relieves me of a bunch of files. Of course, also a little sad and worried as I was raised on a diet of The Camera, The Negative, and The Print, but also relieved. Nobody is going to preserve my work, and then should not. Even if I become, mysteriously, famous and wealthy toward the end of my life, I'd prefer that, in death, I would make room for new voices rather than take up space for all eternity.

In terms of the propagandist altering of the story, the effect of the hole punch, while present, seems to have been extremely minimal, and surely among the weakest of the tools Stryker used to control the story. If you're going to complain about propaganda (and you should) this seems rather small potatos.

In short, the hole punch thing is real, but pretty minor. It's a bit like complaining about de Sade's terrible penmanship.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Nobody Cares!

I am watching unfold a handful of discussions online, as usual, and recently I've been seeing a particular breed of photographer crop up. These fellows are the guys who are pretty sure that a large format film camera is what they needed all along to make their pictures awesome. They're wrong, of course.

What's interesting to me is that I remember being that guy. I still own a large format camera, and keep meaning to get it out. But somehow it never happens.

The discussions have the usual back and forths about the superiority of film (no! the resolutions and ranges of dynamic stops and and) but what it always seems to boil down to is some vague notion of feel. "There's just something about..." is a phrase oft repeated in several variations.

Here's the thing. Outside of certain obvious clues which are easily managed if you know what you're doing, you cannot tell. It is not even hard to take a digital photo and edit it into shape to appear like film. Large format film has no special creamy tonality, it just has very fine grain and, potentially, some interesting properties in the field of focus. Those giant 8x10 negatives with all their incredible detail and beautiful color rendition and choirs of angels? You can do that all with a good modern digital camera, except for the angels. Angels are notorious for hating on the digital.

All the amazing properties of film vanish when you start blinding the tests, as long as you avoid the obvious giveaways (which are either errors, or not properties of film vs. digital).

More to the point, nobody cares what medium you used. What they care about is content, invariably. Over "basically pretty sharp" the only people who care how sharp your picture is are other photographers, and not the interesting ones. Beyond "skin looks like skin, sky looks like sky" ditto for color rendition. As for "tonality" I don't even know what that means, and nobody else does either. It appears to be a bullshit term used by photographers to mean "special properties that only very sensitive people like me can see and I can't explain it to you because you are a philistine but it is super important. trust me.'

I've said it before and will, no doubt, repeat myself. The reasons for using film, be it large format or otherwise, have zero to do with the technical properties of the medium. The reasons are, nonetheless, excellent. If you prefer to use film, then you should definitely use it. It does not change the pictures, but it changes you, and of the two, you are the more important one.