Saturday, March 25, 2017

San Francisco

The following is not about photography, it is photography. Or something. I am going to try to get around to publishing this thing as a magazine, and perhaps even making it available for sale. I welcome opinions, reactions, and so on. Do please note that your advice if offered might get ignored, but your reactions will ceretainly not be. Thank you for your consideration, and respond (of course) in absolutely any way you choose.

I have visited San Francisco regularly for something like 25 years, and lived there for 6 of those years. It's never really been my city, but it's a place I know well, and which I have observed from the outside for half my life. I had occasion to return there a few days ago and, circumstances being willing, performed my preferred flânerie with more intensity than usual.

I will likely get many of the details wrong, but what follows should be right in broad strokes.

Capitalism has baked in to it the idea of constant growth, constant change. Competition drives growth and change. Enterprises of various sorts grow or die, and eventually, all die and are replaced. It includes a built-in inflation, exacerbated locally by fads, by abrupt changes in technology, by growth of industry, and so on. I am no economist, but these things all seem to be true, and I gather that they are essential parts of the capitalist system. Mostly, it works fairly well. When one region experiences one form of growth or another, let us suppose that wages rise, expenses and incomes more or less rise roughly together.

When income rises, especially rapidly, within a group or region, though, it can forces prices up across a larger context. This, in turn, makes the have-nots have somewhat less, in relative terms, arguably twice over. Not only has their income not risen correspondingly, but everything costs more now.

San Francisco has always been a city of change, and has for much of its history been a city of a sort of hyper-capitalism. Wave after wave of newcomers arrive. Each wave more highly paid than the last, while some of the previous wave are cashing out their stock. Rents and purchase prices for homes ratchet upwards to newly surprising levels. Each generation of newcomers, the cry rises, ruins the city for the previous waves, driving out marginal businesses, rendering non-viable everything that made the city desirable in the first place. I was in the wave of newcomers that arrived after the first dot-com boom imploded, and I left shortly before the current bubble really got frothily under way. I did my bit, ruined the city for the remaining, scarred, survivors of the first dot-com bubble, and then I left.

In San Francisco, prices are always rising faster than in the region. Always.

Each wave makes everything, especially living quarters, less affordable to all the non-wealthy people. Each wave of newcomers to San Francisco is part of a phenomenon which drives the less affluent further and further from the city, out into increasingly remote suburbs. Each wave, interestingly, tends to be instantly recognizable on the street. You can tell at a glance who is new and who is not. Not, of course, with 100% reliability, but you can get a general sense that most of this mob arrived in the last couple years, that group over there is from before 2010, that guy was probably here before 2000, that guy might even be a native. Your guesses will be interestingly better than random. In part it's simply age. People tend to arrive in San Francisco when they're about 25 years old.

The men seem to be more identifiable than the women, possibly because the women adopt a broader range of styles, and possibly because the women are (appear to my eye to be) more ethnically diverse. My efforts to photograph the women of the current wave crashed up against the unpleasant truth that, insofar as there is a visual archetype here, it is largely coincident with the rather nasty "Basic Bitch" stereotype, which you may google if you like. The men are simpler, and seem to my eye to fall in to either "Tech Bro" or "Finance Bro" without many exceptions.

4th street, through SOMA, has always been central to my conception of San Francisco. It is the path from Caltrain (commuter rail from points south) to the core of the city and further transit options, and it is generally walked by all, there being no particularly convenient option. 4th separates the growing side (1st through 4th) of SOMA from the slum side (5th through about 10th).

4th street is, I think, where the Friends of Photography Gallery was in the early 1990s, when I went to see the Ansel Adams and the Magnum exhibit there on one of my first visits to the city. It remains the central corridor of the new wave, as it always was. People live south of the city and come in to work, and vice versa. Housing and technology companies exist at both ends.

4th street connects Mountain View, Palo Alto, Sand Hill Road, to the desirable condos of San Francisco. It also connects,, and the offices of a 100 other funny named companies to the less expensive houses and apartments in Burlingame, South San Francisco, Foster City.

I had occasion recently to re-acquaint myself with the story of Thorstein Veblen, who seems to have been the first to really study the idea of conspicuous consumption, the idea that certain goods experience increased demand as the price rises, the so-called Veblen good. Veblen, to my amusement, died more or less a pauper, in a shack, on Sand Hill Road, now ground zero for the Veblen Good. Venture capitalists are starting to leave the cozy nest on Sand Hill, though, and open offices in San Francisco, off the cutest park in the middle of the hottest neighborhood.

One can view 4th street as the pipeline through which wealth is pumped out of the disadvantaged and into the pockets of the already wealthy, if one is cynical enough. I am.

It should not have come as much of a surprise to me to see that homelessness is worse than ever. Tent cities are common. Guys sleeping on sidewalks are more common than they were in 2009. The numbers are larger and to me they feel a little crazier, a little more over the edge. The same areas of town smell like piss, the same areas of town are economically non-viable. The police presence is greater. Perhaps I got lucky, but I observed in two days what might have been a month's worth of crazy in 2007ish, when I lived two blocks off the Tenderloin.

Small businesses in the core area of growth, along Market St, mostly on the SOMA side, have suffered. There are more chain stores, there are more dark wood and stainless steel restaurants that will sell you baby arugula salads roasted in ovens fired with artisanal pecan shells. Sky scraping office towers are going up like weeds. At a furious pace, at any rate, for a geographically tiny little town like San Francisco.

I noticed a couple of restaurants that were excellent 10 years ago, who have actually migrated closer to the core. Apparently they are still excellent, or at any rate have sufficient reputation to move up in the world.

Has this generation, the generation of "tech bros", finally killed what makes San Francisco great? Of course not. It's just the same thing all over again, a wave of destructive renewal, leading to one more layer of generic high priced bullshit spread over the 150 year old bones of an interesting city. Get away from the core, and the place is much the same as it was in 2009, or 2003, or 1990, or I dare say earlier as much as any city is. Little shops and cafes die and are replaced, out in the Sunset District, but at a more normal pace. The good ones are still there, the dubious ones are tottering or gone, replaced.

Bookstores are fewer, but some remain standing. Video stores are gone, I think. Signs o' the times, and not much to do with San Francisco as such, but still disappointing.

Public transit strikes me as having fewer white men (almost none, that is, as compared with "some" in 2009), and I assume that this is largely due to the massive herds of Uber and Lyft cars roaming the streets. Women and people with melanin still ride public transit, though, in vast numbers. I like public transit and despise both Uber and Lyft. The latter I suspect, among their many sins, to be partly responsible for the weirdly monochrome car population in downtown San Francisco. Virtually all cars are white, grey, or black. There are a few slate blues, and a rare muted red. Almost literally nothing else. This might be Uber/Lyft, it might be local fashion, it might be simply that everyone drives late model cars and these are the colors in fashion At The Moment. It's extremely weird once you notice it.

The downtown cultural institutions seems to be doing OK. New money is still money, and these things live on massive donations from the vastly wealthy, of which there is an increasing supply to be tapped by the savvy fundraising team. The SFMOMA has recently completed a staggeringly huge expansion, rendering its space a vast, incomprehensible temple to Art. Enormous volumes seem to have been built for no purpose except to impress the visitor, although I suppose you could hang some art, if it were the size of a bomber, from the ceilings. I assume that the opera and the ballet, as well as the other institutional museums are doing OK as well. I approve, despite my cynicism.

But still. The process resembles globalization, except on a tiny scale, and at greater speed. The central core, where the high wages are, is driving up prices across the city and across the region, where wages are not rising at the same pace because, capitalism. Each wave of newcomers to San Francisco, to the Bay Area, drives the inequalities to a slightly more unequal state. The homeless population rises and gets more desperate. The workers who roast your salad in the pecan-fired oven have to commute in a bit farther.

Every week, the city gets ruined for someone when some institution they loved goes under. Every day another house or two is remodeled from something with problems and character into a featureless white box trimmed in stainless steel and heavy glass, like some South American despot's idea of a museum. The well-fed technologists and bankers gradually but inexorably rise and rise up the economic ladder while, just as inexorably, everyone else slips lower and lower. It's happening all over the world, but just a little faster in San Francisco.

What does seem to be genuinely happening is that these people are ruining the world in an effort to get rich. I was there too. When I wrote games 30 years ago, we worried a little about anonymity and privacy, but not enough. We worried about social impacts, each of us knew someone who had self-immolated playing games on the internet. But we rationalized and didn't worry about it much. I wrote software to make government networks more secure. 30 years later, a couple of generations down time, the kids don't care at all about privacy, or security, or social impacts. Each generation grew up with the fruits of the previous one, and pushed it a little further in the pursuit of the big stock cash-out.

Now we have young men gathering endless data one everyone they can find, correlating it, and packaging it. This is sold to business partners, given to the government, and stored in poorly secured databases so any hacker on earth can gather it up by the terabyte. The only person who can't have your data is you. At the same time we have a trend to "disrupt" businesses, which means to destroy the incumbents and replace them with what will surely mature in to a more expensive, inferior, or perhaps non-existent substitute. Uber, AirBnB, Lyft, TaskRabbit, and so on, all appear to be aimed at pulling a Walmart on the entire economy. Underprice the incumbents until they die, and then stand around in the ruins looking dumb. The young men not gathering your personal history or disrupting you employer's business are probably trying to figure out how to more efficiently deliver more intrusive advertisements to every device in your orbit which consumes electricity.

Not all the young men, to be fair, but enough of them. Too many of them.

It's no-one's fault, it's just capitalism.

Globalization does all these same things, at scale albeit often somewhat more slowly, and one feels that it cannot be sustainable. In the same way, San Francisco's apparently endless frenzied growth and "innovation" feels likewise unsustainable. How and when it crashes down is hard to guess. Every turn of the crank feels like it must surely be the last, and yet, I have personally witnessed enough of those turns to wonder if it must end at all. Perhaps it can go on forever, getting incrementally more and more weird.

There is no rule that says that our society will necessarily evolve and survive this. There is no rule that says humanity will survive it. There is, luckily, also no rule that says the contrary. There aren't any rules at all, this is unprecedented. It's never been tried, it's big, and we don't have a clue how it's going to fall out.

I certainly don't know. I do know that for a few years it angered me, but I have found a kind of peace with it now.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Blog Note

I have been, perhaps justly, accused of not "getting" the work in the most recent issue of LensWork. To be arrogantly honest, I think I'm pretty damned good at teasing out whatever an artist is getting at in a series of pictures, and in most of the work in this issue I have tried and failed to tease anything out. It's just a bunch of attractive pictures.

However, if you disagree and would like to take a crack at teasing out something bigger, something more meaningful, something about, I dunno emotion, politics, memory, dreams, what have you, I will happily accept a guest post.

If more than one person would like to take a whack at it, I will (with permission) put you in touch with one another to see what happens. While I will draw the line at dozens of disparate essays, I'm perfectly willing to put up more than one if collaboration proves unfruitful. Also, if you're not willing to "write up" I'll also accept a set of notes and try to write them up on your behalf, and turn myself into your collaborator. Or other arrangements, I'm open to possibility.

Contact me at if you want to give it a shot.

Meaning in the Age of the Internet

Brooks Jensen has written an interesting editorial in his most recent issue of LensWork. In it he poses the question, essentially, of what we ought to do in the face of billions of technically excellent pictures, where "we" is in rough strokes those of us who are trying to use photography to make personally expressive artwork. Jensen uses several further phrases to elaborate on who "we" is, but let that one stand for all.

His editorial is substantially more sophisticated than the usual "OMG INSTAGRAM" hand-wringing, but I do think it leans rather too far in that direction, and that it ignores obvious solutions.

First let us review a little history. In the beginning, or near enough to it, we had Robinson literally constructing morality plays with his compositing techniques. A little later we have Emerson thundering at anyone who would listen that photography's job is to reveal what is truly there, that the photographer must look, must see, and then reveal. After Emerson, Stieglitz makes his "Equivalent" photographs, attempting to translate emotional states in pictures of clouds. Adams tells us over and over and over that the photograph must be, above all, a true expression of your emotional reaction to the scene.

In short, the major voices in photography have always told us that the point of photography is more than just a picture, more than technical excellence. It's about story, about emotion, about something bigger.

Now, I became conscious in the early 1970s, so this next bit might be wrong, only appearing correct to me because we're transitioning from things I have read about to things I have personally experienced but let us forge ahead. As a direct result of Adams writings being willfully misread by a technophile audience, together with powerful marketing from equipment vendors, technical excellence became a replacement for all of this stuff. Emotion, artistic meaning (whatever that is), and so on became things we paid lip service to, or ignored altogether.

I insist that technical excellence was and remains, in important ways, a substitute for meaning. My error, if any, is that it was always that way, and that what I see as a "new" phenomenon is nothing of the sort. Still, I don't see anyone except me thundering away about meaning. I see a few tentative voices poking timidly at the question, at best.

Consider the availability of materials in this era. Platinum printing, gum bichromate, carbon transfer, calotypes, salt printing, and on and on became the domain of a very very small number of weirdos, you could order up the chemistry from a very very small number of places. I do not, to be honest, know quite when this occurred, but it's more or less concurrent with the rise of straight photography and the f/64 group, and persisted for far too long. The materials and tools all converged on a sort of Best Practices which were all about technical excellence. Say what you will about the vast array of emulsions and papers available in the 1980s, they all pretty much looked the same to anyone who wasn't pre-digital "pixel peeper." Yes, there were differences, and yes I can see them. They were, and are, pretty subtle. The expressive possibilities of generally available photographic materials were, for many decades, essentially straight photography.

In the "high art" world, mind you, we still have all the good stuff going on. Fashion, of course, has no truck with soulless work and carries on pushing the emotional reaction of "I want that" better than ever, and probably a few other niches that are well away from the amateur, serious or otherwise. Everywhere else, though, it's about sharpness and gear.

Jensen asserts that technical excellence was a marker which showed us that the artist was serious, and that we ought to pay attention. I think this is, at least to some degree, false. Technical excellence was in fact largely a replacement for meaning, across vast swathes of the photographic landscape.

Jensen asks, in his editorial, what should we do?

The answer has not changed, and I dare say it will not change. If you seek to "use photography to make personally expressive artwork" then you should go and do that.

This is what every artist ever has always done. Even Andy Warhol was doing this, it's just that media, marketing, and fame were his actual canvas.

How to do it? Well, you get to decide that, and it is for you to work out. There are many paths. I can guarantee you that making a bunch of loosely related and technically excellent photographs is not the answer, although it might be a little piece of it. Obsessing over the number of followers you have on instabook is probably not a good thing to devote any time to.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

LensWork #129

Correction: There is at least one additional portfolio in this issue, and at this point I am unwilling to commit to an actual number having previously counted four. My larger point, though, still stands.

I had occasion to buy this, the current issue Brooks Jensen's magazine. I've never actually owned one before, though of course I've flipped through a few issues at the newsstand, and I am naturally aware of the publication. It's put together just a few miles down the road from me. The reason for my purchase was to read the editorial, which is some sort of discussion/rant about technical excellence comma a plague of. I have yet to actually read it, because I started looking at the pictures, and here we are.

My intention is not to review this as such, since I cannot easily point you to a place where you can look at the pictures.

My intention is to talk, briefly I hope, about the limitations of the editors of this work.

In brief, of the five portfolios presented, exactly one has is conceptually anything other than trivial to the point of inanity. It's painfully clear that Jensen still leans heavily on the idea of the Single Iconic Photo and that therefore a portfolio is a sort of Greatest Hits album. Make no mistake, every single picture is superb, a technical tour-de-force, and often very beautiful besides.

One is a collection of black and white aerial photographs. Technically superb, but I get it. When you get up high the land and all man's works become abstracted. So what?

One is a collection of pretty stones on some sort of streambed, with water rippling over them. Again, technically superb. Beautiful. But there's no idea here at all. Any single one of the pictures could stand in for the others, the only question is how big is the print, and does it go with the furniture. This isn't conceptually inane, it's conceptually non-existent.

There's a couple portfolios of composited stuff which do, in fact, a nice job of carrying an idea, a sensation. In one, children play in a spookily dark and foggy playground, in the other we convey some sense of the desert fog. In both cases, any single photo would have done. They're all the same idea, repeated in different ways. One photo is literally a different crop of another one, with a different paint job lashed onto it. The ideas here, while present, seem to be essentially visual, kind of thin. I liked the desert ones anyway, but we really just needed to see one picture.

And finally we come to the one that Jensen wisely leads with, which is about a railroad bridge and environs. There are some visual ideas, some ideas of solitude, decay, and so on. At any rate that's what I see. It feels like there's enough depth here that you might see something different. The main point, though, is that the pictures are not all the same. One picture picks up a visual idea from the previous one, echoing the flock of crows as footprints in the snow, and then the next repeats the path of footprints in the curled path of flowing water.

Beyond the flow of purely visual ideas, the sense of place is built up, bit by bit. Each picture actually has a reason for being there, and adds a little bit. I do not think the portfolio is excellent but it's pretty good. And, of course, the pictures and reproductions have a technical excellence to them.

And so we come to the point of my remarks here.

If you're going to show more than one picture, the whole should be greater than the sum of the parts. In this issue of LensWork, the whole is in general something less than even the sum of the parts. It's a high-culture, beautifully made, carefully managed instagram account.

And that is a terrible waste.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

"Street Photography"

Here is a mildly interesting confluence which has crossed my personal perception recently.

Marketing your Street Photography which is a plug for an online workshop from Chris Gampat. Puzzled, I sent Chris a polite note asking him what on earth this even meant, to which he did not reply. Looking at the web site, we see three sessions. The first is how to take awesome photos, the next appears to be telling you how to get on all the social media platforms, and the third is how to use those platforms. The workshop title is "How to become a Legitimate Street Photographer."

The second item is this essay from The Photo Fundamentalist. Now, Tom Stanworth is just all around a more substantial guy than Chris Gampat, but he's making the same kind of underlying, mistaken, assumptions.

Street photography is barely even, as the kids say, "a thing." Sure, there's a million people running around taking photographs of people on streets, that's not the point. Neither is it the point that these photographs, by and large, are not very interesting.

The point is that there's nothing here to "Market" as Chris would suggest, nor to "Kill" as Tom suggests. It's just a hobby. There's no money in it, there's no trade association (unless you count Magnum?), there's nothing there. It's just "photographs that aren't done in a studio, and which are also not landscapes."

One might as well offer a workshop on marketing your karaoke skills: Day One, How to Sing Awesomely; Day Two, how to use Soundcloud; Day Three, how to get record company executive to listen to your soundcloud feed. Whaaaat? Similarly, the fact that lots of people do karaoke badly isn't killing karaoke, and "killing" karaoke isn't even something that's meaningful. Karaoke will die not when too many people do it, but when nobody does it.

The fact that, very very occasionally, someone's karaoke skills appear to be part of what launched them into a career as a singing teacher, or a pop star, is irrelevant. You might as well buy lottery tickets, and anyways the karaoke probably had almost nothing to do with whatever the success was.

Furthermore, both Tom and Chris seem to be making the mistake that individual street photographs are the goal. Single awesome pictures. This has basically never been the right answer for street, whatever you even mean by that term. Even the mighty names don't make much sense one picture at a time. It's all just snaps, sometimes lucky snaps. I submit that even the canonical iconic pictures would be dismissed, taken one by one. Indeed, every now and then some wag posts one for "critique" and then all the clever buggers have a laugh at the rubes who say "that's just a lucky snap."

They're all just lucky snaps. The impact doesn't happen until you see a bunch of them, and start to get what the photographer was after.

In this modern era, we're more sophisticated. The potential for a powerful essay is stronger than ever, even be it filled with individual cliches. Learning how to take an awesome street shot (honestly, I shudder slightly when I think about what on earth Chris is going to tell his students in this session) isn't the end of the story. It's barely the beginning, and Tom selecting a bunch of single shots for complaint is to also completely miss the point.

That said, I quite like The Photo Fundamentalist, and have added it to my reading list. You should too! Just ignore the gear reviews.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Words & Pictures

Laboring under the cruel lash of Daniel Milnor's inspiration, I am attempting to pull together a magazine. The material will appear here first, though.

I went and shot a bunch of material, which was informed by some vague notions I had. Then I had the pictures. Then I started to write, and both the vague notions I started with and the pictures informed what I have to write. Now I have, roughly, written 1500 words of so that says what I have to say, and now I am going back and selecting and sequencing the pictures, informed by what I have written.

It's a very interesting process. The writing sharpens the idea, defines the sequencing of the pictures. I'm not simply looking for illustrations here, but themes and ideas. The pictures aren't going to be directly related to the essay, in fact. But they're influenced by it, and in turn influence it.

Also, it's a bit of a struggle.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Pictures with Weight

You don't have to look to far to see people talking about Pictures that Changed Everything, and wondering what's going on now. It seems that anyone who fancies himself a bit of a thinker about photography has a go at it. It is commonly thought that Nick Ut's "Napalm Girl" and Eddie Adams photograph of the execution by pistol and a few others changed the face of history. I have almost certainly made this claim myself. I have also claimed that Gene Smith's work at Minamata altered the course of history.

I am no longer convinced that this is quite right. History is more complicated than that. It's right in a sense, but it's not completely right.

The public and policy perceptions of the Vietnam war were on a cusp of sorts, we can observe from our comfortable chair in the future. Public opinion was shifting, policy was following reluctantly behind to one degree or another. The time was ripe. The iconic photos dropped into a super-saturated solution of change, and change obligingly crystallized violently around them. You can argue that the photos were indeed the agent of change, but the point is that it was not blind luck that these particular photos dropped into the world. Other photos, other slogans, other glib essays, other fragments of media, might just as well have been the seed.

Likewise, Gene Smith's work at Minamata crystallized a super-saturated solution of god damn it these corporations are making gigantic messes. Without Nick Ut, without Eddie Adams, without Gene Smith, the changes would still have happened. History would, I think, have played out somewhat differently. Minamata might have never become a scandal, but somewhere else would have, in the hands of another agent of change. Corporate behavior would still have been reined in, the USA would still have left Vietnam, and on more or less the same schedules.

Did the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand "cause" WWI? No. But it catalyzed it. It set the start date. Without that event, WWI would still have occurred, and at roughly the same time. Who attacked who first might have been different, and it might have started weeks or months later, but it was going to happen.

Reading the Pictures, to my amazement, has placed their finger pointedly on an interesting counterpoint (which they then fumbled). The direct our attention to an album of photos from the White House, chronicling the first 50 days of the Trump presidency. Then they cut&paste their own tweets and go on a little about Trump Fake, Obama So Cool.

That's not the point. The point is that the Trump presidency is presenting a particular view of itself. The steady drip of pictures of a Presidential, Strong Trump is obviously a deliberate artifice. The steady drip of Cool, Relaxed, Human Obama was just as much an artifice. You don't think we saw those pictures of Obama looking tired, vulnerable, by accident, do you? These are sophisticated people, being handled by sophisticated media experts.

What can, I suspect, change the course of history is a stream of carefully selected pictures. Compare our notion of the Vietnamese conflict with the Iraqi wars. In the former, there was some silly idea of letting guys with cameras just run around shooting whatever they liked, and that didn't go so well for the guys running the Pentagon. Now they restrict things much more carefully, and the image we get is of a very professionally run war. Whatever that could possibly even mean. This has, I postulate, been instrumental in preventing the creation of that super-saturated solution that got the USA so ignominiously out of Vietnam.

The same things are happening. Our guys are getting hideously wounded, our gear is exploding when it ought not, our guys are screwing up left and right. But we don't see it, and we don't feel it. Even I don't feel it. Even I cannot escape the vague idea that our guys are a bunch of pros and the whole thing is pretty "clean" even though I know it's not. It's exactly the same mechanic by which I "know" that BMW is the Ultimate Driving Machine, that Coca-Cola refreshes, and that Nikon is totally committed to serious photography.

I "know" that Obama is cool, human, and an all around good guy even though I suspect strongly that none of those is true except the middle one, and that only in a strict biological sense. God help me, I might wind up "knowing" that Trump is presidential, and yet tough. The only way to avoid it is to not consume those pictures, I suspect.

One picture doesn't change history. The best it can do is violently crystallize what was already in play. A series of pictures, a media campaign, manages not the crystallization process (it's too late by the time the solution is super-saturated) but the preparation of the solution.

The role photography plays in history, and in the management of the populace (they're often the same thing) has changed radically, and the bad guys are winning.