Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Humans of New York: Stories

This is a relatively recent book from the Humans of New York guy Brandon Stanton, I see that it's been out for a bit more than a year. I've always been vaguely dismissive of the HONY thing, but never really looked at it. I came across a copy of this book at a friend's house, and spent some time looking through it. It was interesting enough to get it from the library and take a few hours with it.

It is, of course, a bunch of "street portraits" shot in New York City by Brandon Stanton. The wrinkle with this volume is that he includes more text, some kind of "story" usually snippets of what he extracted while interviewing the subject. Sometimes a line, sometimes a few paragraphs, occasionally just an observation from the photographer.

The pictures are HONY pictures, which means they're in focus, colorful, often of interesting looking people, and completely unremarkable. What sells this thing isn't the photos, it's the project, the sheer number of pictures.

Brandon has done something interesting with this book. The stories are sequenced in the way one might sequence photographs. One story tells of a man's cancer, the next of a mother's death by cancer, the next of a single mother, and so on. The stories flow, one connected to the next.

So that's interesting. It makes the book coherent and fun to pick up and flip through a few pages. The writing is quite good.

The writing, it's quite good. Which would be OK except that these are supposed to be quotes. Well, it's obvious that Brandon edits for clarity, and indeed edits to a more or less common voice. His interviews with homeless subjects are the big tell, they're coherent. Homeless people are not coherent. You try sleeping outside for a week, you won't be coherent either.

The second problem is that the thing is insanely repetitive. Every 20 pages there's a Gay Story, a Cancer Story, a Meet-Cute Story, a Homeless Story, a Drug Addiction Story, a Breakup Story, and then some cute kid overdressed and shot from the kid's level captioned "Today in microfashion..."

This all adds up to a picture of New York City that's drawn straight from television. This is a media-friendly, carefully edited and presented, remarkably boring, version of New York City. It's the version of New York City that media consumers all over the globe know altogether too well, and suspect already of being false or at least incomplete.

HONY has many of the elements of a typology. He's showing us different instances of the same subject, over and over, presented in much the same way again and again. The difference is that a typology takes an apparently dull subject, and makes it interesting through repetition, demanding that the viewer examine the subjects more closely and find the differences, the similarities.

Brandon, on the other hand, manages to take an interesting class of subject (people, the most interesting subject) and render it incredibly dull with his process.

I loved the book when I flipped through it at my friend's house. Liked it when I started reading it. I was a little disappointed by the time i reached then end. Now after mulling it over and looking through it a handful more times, I actively and thoroughly dislike it.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Richard Sexton: Photography Tomorrow

Over on LuLa, Richard Sexton has written, now, three pieces covering Photography Then, Now, and Tomorrow respectively. I have taken exception to each of the first two, here, and here. It's clear to me that Richard is thinking about this stuff really hard, but that he's basically kind of clueless, as I have noted before.

He's also terrible with apostrophes, routinely using it's when he means its, and introducing the bizarre their's at one point. A piddling issue, but a pet peeve of mine.

As an aside, some of you have probably noticed that I occasionally contribute to LuLa. Kevin asked me nicely, which is pretty much my Achilles heel. Kevin either is a genuinely nice guy, or a skilled actor who plays one brilliantly. So, this might come across as a bitter "my piece is cooler than Richard's piece!" but as far as I can tell, it's not actually like that. Can't speak for the demons down in the bottom of my brain, though.

Richard begins with a discussion of Warhol's 15 minutes of fame concept, which is a bad beginning. Richard is still clearly focusing on global fame as the target, the idea that everyone should know your name. This is wrong-headed and silly, it's the wrong direction. Local fame is the future, the connected world implies it. With no gatekeepers to accessing the global market, the global market becomes (already is) cacophony. On the flip side, with total connectivity, finding one's niche in the world becomes easier. With 7 billion connected souls, surely you can find 1000 that like your work. Richard hand-wrings a bit about How Awful It All Is what with social media and free content etc. The standard Old Guard complaints.

Then he proceeds to prognosticate, to guess at what might be the world in 20 years. Unfortunately his analysis, based on he admits his gut feeling, for where Photography will be in 20 or 25 years is completely out to lunch. It is in fact an accurate description of today, right now, which gives you a hint as to how out of touch he really is. He accurately summarizes the state of photography as a career today, suggesting that this is how it will be in future. "Corporations will use in-house people for many different aspects of media production" - wow, you mean, in 20 years it'll be exactly like now?

Freelancing will be largely dead as a career in the future, except for fashion/glamour. I assume that he selected fashion/glamour as the lucky winner for the future because he's actually writing this in 1996, but with knowledge of 2016? While he might be correct, there's no reason whatsoever to suppose that fashion/glamour won't follow whatever path other editorial work ends up on. Indeed, we're already seeing it happen now. Much of fashion marketing is on instagram, done by people on their own dime with the hopes of being paid by some fashion vendor later. Essentially, they're doing spec work already and I don't see any reason offhand that this won't continue and accelerate.

Then he suggests that blogs are the way forward for Serious Artists (blogs are gradually, inevitably, ticking downwards, and have only been around for about 20 years. God knows what they will look like, if anything, in another 20). This seems to be mainly a cry of "please tell me that instagram is not vehicle by which people will be selling photography in 20 years." Don't worry, Richard. It won't be instagram. It will be something neither of us can even imagine, and it will be much much worse (from your perspective.)

In an almost pitiable coda, he concludes (one of many conclusions) that the pendulum will swing back, and things will go back to pretty much the way they used to be when he knew what was what, and who was who. The pendulum metaphor is horrible. You can always trot it out and arrive at the wrong answer. Things are changing, you observe, like the motion of a pendulum's motion and nobody will call you on it, because the pendulum metaphor is universal. Oh, thank god, pendulums always swing back, don't they you observe next, and then take comfort in the idea that things will pretty much go back the way they were. And the audience nods dumbly.

Photography is not changing like a pendulum, it is changing like a meteor.

He is, I think, correct, that photojournalism as a career is likely to stay pretty much dead. Newsworthy, topical, imagery is ubiquitously available for nothing and there's no reason to suppose that's going to change. Probably new technology will roll out. Ubiquitous drones? Sure. In 5 years. 20 years? Who knows. Smart spraypaint that lets you squirt down a connected "camera" anywhere, maybe. We can speculate, but there's essentially zero probability that we'll get the technology right. Ubiquity seems like a safe bet, though, which implies free pictures, which implies photojournalism is dead.

Technologically, there are really two possibilities. One is that we'll stop right about here. The 2D CMOS sensor with a chunk of shaped glass or plastic in front of it might be just where we stop. The telephone remained, basically, the same for several decades when it got "good enough". The other possibility is that technology will proceed, probably heading down the computational photography path. It leads somewhere, to someplace where a whole bunch of tiny, lousy, cameras are ganged together. Is that smart spraypaint? Is it fleets of bee-sized drones? Is it massive boxes with 100 lenses on the front? Beats me. Could be any of them, could be all of them.

Note that ubiquitous computational photography means that whatever is left of the idea of photojournalism will also die a brisk, gruesome, death. Computational photography makes trivial a degree of editing that is fairly complex and difficult today. The idea that a picture contains anything resembling truth will take another savage blow, should computational photography become dominant.

Consider, for example, that you could integrate a photograph with a digital model, trivially. Now suppose that an interested party offered up a digital model of a particular location in which something interesting happened. Many people take snaps with their phones of the newsworthy event, and then in a fit of patriotism, or because a man with a gun suggested it, they merge their snap with the digital model. Suddenly, 100s of different people post pictures which all show the same state-approved but completely false scene. From many angles, from many points of view. Nifty, huh? You saw it here first.

Either way, though, the ubiquitous camera seems likely in the future. We're almost there now, and there doesn't seem to be any counter-trend in play. Not one that I can detect, at any rate. That said, 20 years is pretty much forever.

We can deduce some things, though.

If we assume that money and economics continue to function more or less as they have for a few hundred years here in the west, we can confidently guess that people with disposable income will continue to collect Art. We can guess, with a little less confidence but still with some, that they'll collect photography. Not the least because wealthy people tend to be old people. The collectors of 20 years hence are the 30-somethings of today, and many of them are enamored of film, for crying out loud.

Wealthy people have no time or interest in sifting through jillions of artists. They'll pay someone to act as a gatekeeper. Are these gallery curators? Personal assistants? Will there be new degree programs in Art Selection? Will there be a sort of butler-like education system whereby the designated gatekeepers are trained, by previous generations, how to pick Art? I dunno. Doesn't matter. The profession will exist, and will select Art to be collected, to be purchased at Great Expense. Fine Art in this sense will therefore remain much the same, a weird mish-mash of skill, vision, and personal connections. The people to butter up may or may not be the same as they are today.

That said, 20 years is pretty much forever.

Vernacular photography? Hell if I know. I presume that people will be continuing to take snaps of their kids at the pool, birthday parties, etc. Video clips will likely become more and less popular in an ebb and flow. Computational photography may play a role here, allowing easier edits, opportunities for whimsy. Drop your kid's birthday party into space, or a volcano, or a jungle! Whee! Fads will come and go, but computational photography -- if it comes to pass -- will enable a whole new world of such fads, and we may find ourselves in a brave new world of endlessly changing fads. The only constant might be that nothing is real, everything is a collage, except when, occasionally, the wheel turns and the fad becomes #nofilter again for a day or two.

To a moderate extent we're already there. The question is whether the whole idea of a filter is itself a fad, or if it is the new normal. Ubiquitous computational photography would provide a strong push in the "this is the new normal" direction.

If this new normal comes to pass, that will be unfortunate. We will lose an important record, the record will not show what was there but rather what kinds of photographic fads were trending at this moment or that.

It is possible that there will be a rise in documentary photography, in photographs which are distinguished and special mainly because they show what was really there. Who will fund it? I dunno. There's no reason to suppose that it won't be self-funded, or funded through whatever social media evolves in to.

Richard spends quite a bit of time worrying about who's going to fund photography in the future, apparently not aware of the Patreon/Kickstarter model, or if he is one presumes that he's dismissed it because it does not resemble how things were in the good old days. Patreon/Kickstarter styles of funding are either just getting started, or will fizzle out soon. I suspect the former.

People like Art, they like being connected to the Artist, and they're willing to kick in a few bucks. The music industry is a decade ahead of Art here, at least (depending on how you look at it). Musicians have found for 1000s of years that you can -- sometimes -- make a living by playing well and having personal relationships with people who will give you a few bucks now and then. This model has been on the upswing for the last 10 or 20 years, as I understand it. You don't get rich, not everyone can even pay the bills, but some bands can eke out a living of sorts.

It is possible that niches for Fine Art photography, for Real Documentary Photography, even for Journalistic Photography, will be funded in more or less this way. Public Radio has done OK for a long time, doing both journalism and entertainment, in roughly this way. The details, who knows? Could be anything. But it seems likely that there will be something. The connected world, with everyone potentially able to touch everyone else, enables many many niches.

There's room for millions of individual artists and essayists, each with a handful of supporters, each more or less successful in the modern sense of the word.

That said, 20 years is pretty much forever.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Family of Man

There was a famous exhibition of photography called The Family of Man at the NY MOMA in 1955. Edward Steichen curated it. You've heard of it, probably seen some pictures from it, and you know that it was a hugely influential and "important" exhibition. You probably know that it went on around the world for a few years, and if you're really tuned in you know that it currently resides in Luxembourg.

What I did not know is that there was a book. Well, of course there was, wasn't there? There always is. It simply never occurred to me.

I happened across this thing while visiting some of my wife's friends, and had the opportunity to spend a couple of mornings with the book.

What a staggering monument! Holy cow. Especially for 1955 America.

It's a brilliant and powerful piece of work. The intention was to show that humans are far more alike than we are different, a theme I am currently plugging. It succeeds, astonishingly well for a body of work pulled together in the 1950s. We see people of various cultures and ethnicitys, and it is inescapable that we all show fear, hunger, joy, love, in much the same ways. Our relationships within our families, within our communities, all have roughly the same shape.

At the same time, the collection doesn't pretend that we're identical. We look different, we dress differently. In some ways we indeed express emotions a little differently. Still, it is clear that as you mentally strip away the details of clothing, skin color, variation in cultural themes, we are all at the core basically the same. One couple kisses passionately, another demurely, but the essentials of love are the same. One child's face screws up in fear or hunger, another endures stoically, but the hunger or fear is much the same. The tasks vary from one place to another, but a gang of men working together looks much the same whether they are laying train tracks in Canada or pulling fishing nets in Asia.

We are all different, and yet we are all much the same, and the sameness is far more essential, far more basic, than the differences.

This is important. This is a message that photography is uniquely suited to deliver.

The book isn't perfect. Western, white, people are far more generously represented than are people with more pigment in their skin. Of course they are, it can't be helped. You can tell that Steichen and his team struggled to get as much breadth as possible, and fell short of the ideal. Africa, for instance, vast Africa, is represented largely by a single nation and a single photographer, with a smattering of a few pictures from here and there. Asia, even vaster, fares slightly better, but is still short-changed. America, little America, gets the lion's share of the pictures. So it goes. There's still enough there to get the idea. One could argue that it's better, for us westerners, this way. The relatively rare photograph from far off lands jumps out, surprises us a little, invites investigation.

A Nigerian might justifiably find it a tedious litany of white American-ness.

The technical details of the book are not particularly special. The printing process has that weird shiny look in the blacks when angled to the light just so, some specularity there. The paper is thin. The tonal range is pretty flat. None of that matters, because this is a book of content, not of form. It contains photographs from giants of the field, and from nobodies. It has minor work from giants, and remarkable work from people you've never heard of.

If you get a chance, look at a copy. Perhaps your library has a copy, perhaps there's one for sale in a local bookstore. Worth a look.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Seeing the Network

I went to the San Diego Zoo yesterday, with my wife and kids. There's a moderate amount of milling around in lines, pushing kids around in strollers, and so on. Also, I make no pretense of being a street photographer.

What I did do was try to be aware of the mesh, the network of relationships the people. Just simple things that we all perceive, there's no magic here. This person is happy in this moment, that person is irritated with their spouse/lover/friend, that child is bored, those people are all looking at the panda. The difference was that I was trying to be conscious of it, to silently articulate what I saw, and to make some effort to photograph what I was articulating.

It's a tiny step removed from "that's interesting" or "that's visually arresting" but I think it's interestingly different.

Here's some pictures. I could make a bunch of excuses, but I won't. I will simply acknowledge that they're not very good, and that the reasons are many, not least among them that I'm not very good at this. Too damn many pictures from behind.

I will say that I was 1000x better at this yesterday that I have been in the past.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Reading Tracks and Musing about it all

I am reading a book, on Milnor's recommendation. It's about this woman walking across a big chunk of Australia with some camels. There are many things that can be said about it, but one of the salient bits she writes of is her experience of the Australian Outback. She'd spent enough time with the native peoples there to kind of bootstrap a more intimate relationship with the land. She describes how she began to see it in a new way, to recognize the network of relationships that is implied by every rock, every leaf, every dead twig. She notices, instantly, a strict boundary between land which is in its natural state and land "ruined" by cattle, a distinction that is she realizes is literally invisible to the other white people around.

This is related to my mild obsession with Natural Navigation and my other mild obsession with Things Vaguely Buddhist.

The point is that in the natural world there is a wildly complex mesh of relationships between phenomena, organisms, and objects. Such and such a plant may tend to grow on ground that is shaded a little longer during the day. Just a tendency. At sea, the swell may be at this moment coming from one direction, the waves from another, and the wind from yet a third. Even an experienced white sailor is only likely to really note the last one. A fully capable Islander would know all three, and also have made a set of deductions about what is likely the happen in the next 24 hours and perhaps where the nearest land is.

In my reading it has become clear to me that these sorts of meshes of relationship, these networks, exist everywhere, and nomadic peoples tend to be intimately aware of them. It has also become clear to me that developing a degree of awareness is relatively easy. White people can learn to pick up on the cues, and develop an awareness of this formerly invisible "system" in a matter of months, perhaps a year or two. What is harder is learning to do something pragmatic with is.

Robyn Davidson, the author of Tracks claims perception of the world in roughly the way that the native people of Australia perceive it. However, where a native might use that perception to say "water over there, little bit long way" she seems to not have that facility. So, she perceives it, but that is the end of it.

For our purposes, though, I don't think it's necessary to be able to locate water, or land, using this perception. From the artist's point of view the relatively easy white man's perception is probably sufficient. We're trying to make art, not locate water, after all.

Hold those thoughts for the moment. Another branch of thought here:

While it is usual in these sorts of writings to hand-wring over what has been lost in these degenerate modern times, the fact is that nothing has been lost. The urban dweller has no perception of the Australian Outback, it's just a bunch of dry weeds and kangaroo shit. However, drop that dweller in New York City, and they perceive vast networks. They know that the person ahead is about to hesitate, look in a shop window. They can tell that the car is going to stop, and the other car is going to blow the red light. They know that this person can be approached to ask for directions and that one cannot. The tourists are obvious.

This knowledge is imprecise, error ridden, in fact. In the same way that knowledge of the sea or the land is. Individual guesses may or may not be correct, because they are after all guesses. The overall picture, though, is correct. Humans and their works exist in a vast network of relationship to one another, and those of us who have spent a few years or more in urban settings can in fact do the equivalent of finding water, of finding land. We can do things like jaywalk without being killed.

Consider now, the idea of these vast and subtle networks of relationship in both nature, and in the world of humanity, in our cities, in our towns, in our rural landscapes.

These networks are in the first place real things. Robyn Davidson makes the remarkably astute point that we tend to fall in to the language of mysticism, or magic, when talking about them, but that is only because we lack better vocabulary. These networks of relationship are real things. They are also wonderfully subtle, deep, and complex. One who is fully connected with their environment (cue discussion of Buddhism, I guess) is only consciously aware of part of it. At the end of the day, the Aborigine knows there is water that way because he knows it, the Islander knows that land is over there because he knows it, and you and I know that the car ahead of us is going to turn right at the next intersection, because we know it. There are cues and hints we could point to, but they're not the whole picture. We just know.

This makes photography uniquely suited as a medium for portraying these things. A painting, an essay, a drawing, can only describe what we consciously know. We can only talk about the way the car slowed down, and the way the driver's silhouetted head appeared. I cannot paint, draw, or write about the other, unconscious, cues.

A photograph, and better yet a photo essay, captures in its limited way the whole of what is there. Conscious and unconscious have nothing to do with what the camera records, it records what it is pointed at.

I think perhaps that this is what photography ought to be doing, and what much of the best of photography does.

Perhaps a great landscape photograph derives its greatness from the way it records some part of the network of relationship that defines the land and they way it is able to imply more of it. Perhaps Cartier-Bresson's best work can be considered to have recorded not a moment, not an event, but the mesh of relationships that defined the moment, that defined the event. Perhaps Winogrand's genius was to illuminate in each frame a single gleaming, unexpected, strand in the mesh of relations that makes up the city.

I think there's some strong relationship with trame here, but I am damned if I can articulate it. Also, I am unwilling to make categorical statements like "all photographs must elucidate the network" or whatever. It just seems like a thing that photos are well suited to do, and something that it strikes me that many of the best pictures do.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

That was weird

I noticed traffic from Leicaphilia yesterday and went to look. They, he, whoever it is, had re-posted my "The Nikon" parody piece without, as far as I know, asking me permission. I posted what I hope was a mild comment to that effect. The result was that the piece vanished, without a word.

I am baffled as to why they didn't ask me in the first place, and then why they didn't ask me in the second place. I don't really care if people repost my stuff, it's just polite to ask first. I'd have said yes. Leicaphilia doesn't seem to be some sketchy ad-ridden content farm? The site looks like the kind of site that would ask first, and if they didn't, they'd apologize and ask second. But, nothing.

Anyone know this guy?