Saturday, April 29, 2017

Political Photography

There are, in very broad strokes, roughly two things that can happen in a group. One is Group Polarization, in which through a variety of interactions, the group's attitude taken en masse as well as individual by individual tends to move toward a single extreme position. The other thing that can happen is, well, the opposite of that.

I will quite likely botch some of the details in what follows. God knows there's a great deal of research into these things out there, so feel free to check me. Please do, at least before you quote me anywhere. As always, I'm trying for a quick sketch that captures the broad strokes.

There are three big motivators working here. There's the desire to go along with the group, there's the desire to express one's individuality, and there's a desire for increased social status. In a group with a more or less uniform set of attitudes, the easiest way to accomplish all three at once is to read the temperature of the group, and express that shared attitude in a slightly more extreme way. In the first place you're basically agreeing with everyone, in the second place by being more extreme you preserve your individuality, and in the third place with a little care you can turn this into a social status jump because you are clearly the Mostest Whateverest.

This leads to a death spiral, of course, if more than one person gets into the game. Then you all shoot one another, and Franco takes over despite the fact that you were winning just a moment ago. See also internet forums, comment threads, and political parties.

Group Polarization is easy to induce, and it's very convenient for anyone who wants to manage you.

Since people alter their attitudes in quite small increments, if you can keep your population polarized, then everyone is is neat little boxes where they can be managed. By polarizing them radically, you ensure that they stay in the box -- the edges of the box are too far away to reach in one or two small steps, and the ongoing polarization activities will chivvy them back into the radical center before they get near to switching parties. In the USA we have Fox News and NPR dutifully keeping their blocs neatly enbloc-d. Why the GOP wants to cut funding for public broadcasting is a mystery, it's easily the cheapest tool to keep the lefties pinned down ever.

Politicians are typically not very polarized, although they engage in polarizing activities more or less as a profession. They're pretty pragmatic. Ditto captains of industry.

Most political art, indeed most political action, is just polarization activity. Preaching to the choir is easy, it gets you accolades from your peer group. All you have to do is make some pictures and write a little text that boils down to "you are so pretty, the only error I find in your thinking is that you don't know just how pretty you are!!" which is a pretty easy sell.

Most political action is therefore utterly ineffective. It serves merely to keep lefties in the box marked Lefties and the righties in the box marked Righties where the state knows how to handle them. Your art, while helpful to the state, isn't necessary. The state has many many resources available to accomplish the ongoing polarization needs.

The only way to actually make a difference is to induce the other sort of group behavior, in a group and at a time when a useful change is a small step away.

You're not going to persuade a politician to make a radical jump. You're not going to persuade a bunch of racists to love their neighbors. You can with a bit of effort and a bit of luck persuade almost anyone to make a small jump. You can make the racists believe that a few of Those People are ok, kind of. You can make a politician whose vote on such and such was always in doubt anyways lean this way, or that.

Small changes, at the right moment, can shift a tide.

Gene Smith's Minamata essay appeared after Nixon created the EPA. Nick Ut's photograph was shot when the US troop deployment in Vietnam was dropping precipitously, and well below the peak half million or so. These pictures didn't create inflection points, but they did aid momentum at possibly critical moments. Politicians who were already more or less willing, but who might have dragged their feet, didn't. Or dragged their feet less.

Your photographs will not make White Europe embrace the refugees. It might make White Europe despise them less, and sympathize more. Your photographs might prepare White Europe for the work that next year makes things a little better still. Your photographs might persuade a politician already inclined to support pro-refugee policies that it would be safe to actually do so.

What about actual mechanics?

Points I've made time and again: Photographs derive their strength from depicting what is in a literal-minded sort of way "real." People looking at Art will try to fit what they see into a mental model, and in the case of the photograph they will try to fit it into a model that is "real" in some vague sense. Even if they're looking at clearly staged things, the viewer will try to imagine what the stage was, what the players were doing, and so on.

If the aim of your Political Art is to change attitudes, opinions, to alter the course of history by altering people, then it is this mental model fitting that you're going to need to use. I don't know if this is the only program that works, but here it is anyway.

You should have in mind, roughly, whose opinions, ideas, attitudes you want to change, and you should have roughly in mind what they think right now. So simply assuming that Trump voters are all three headed imbeciles isn't going to work very well, you'll need a realistic idea of your targets.

Photographs are going to work best on an emotional level, I think. Reasoning, making a logical argument, in pictures strikes me as difficult.

I draw from the theory of harmony in tonal music, for this next bit.

Show them photographs that they can believe are true. Do not over-challenge their world view, lest they dismiss your pictures as faked (in one sense or another: photoshopped, staged, cherry-picked, cropped to change meaning, and so on). The pictures must first build trust. Your target audience has to see things the "know" in an emotional way to be true. Then, ever so gently, show them similar photos that challenge that knowledge, or force the viewer to either reject the picture or expand their understanding of the world. If you're built enough trust, they might just expand rather than reject.

Perhaps you merely caption perfectly reasonable photos in a way that lightly challenges.

They know that war is hell, they've seen plenty of pictures of casualties, of explosions. Then you show them one more casualty, a little more dramatic, a little more sympathetic than before. It's a little girl, naked, running in fear. It shocks them, a little, but they've been prepared, they believe it. And then you caption it to reveal that it was us that did it, our allies did this. It was a mistake, but it was us.

Hit them emotionally, hit them in their identity, "we are or are not the kind of people who do this" is the message you want to implant.

All the rational arguments in world against the Vietnam War won't move the mountain. Neither will all the terrible pictures of war. Together, the rational mind is persuaded, the heart wants to follow.

Close with less challenging pictures, close with pictures they will find easy to believe. This is analogous to the way dissonance is handled in tonal music: bring your harmony along beautifully (i.e. without dissonance), landing on a chord which "prepares" for the dissonance, by being close to it in a harmonic sense, then "resolve" which a chord that includes the dissonant tone, and carry on the harmony beautifully (without dissonance) from there.

You slip the challenge in, wrapped in pictures that are obviously true. Perhaps accompanying text makes the rational case, but again in relatively friendly terms.

Don't insult, rather, find common ground.

If you wanna change the world, it's got to be one small step at a time.

Friday, April 28, 2017

"My Kid Could Do That!"

This is the cliched refrain repeated by people who don't "get" modern art. The question I have for these folks (if you're not one of them, feel free to method act, and listen) is this:

Why do you think so little of your child? Why is it that whatever it is that you think is Real Art is out of the reach of your poor disabled child?

The terrible reality of today is that almost everything is pretty easy. I read some remarks, at random, from a person engaged in a large embroidery project. The embroiderer was bellyaching about how you have to special order special magic needles from England, otherwise you get crappy needles which make it super hard. Later, the same person remarked that in these modern times you can buy unflawed thread for embroidery, identically dyed with unfading colors, literally by the mile. Both of these things would have been magic, 200 years ago, or at best astronomically expensive. Nowadays, with some classes and some practice, and for a modest budget your kid could do that.

Is a gorgeously joined copy of Ben Franklin's desk Art? With modern glues, methods, and tools, it's not even particularly hard. You gotta learn some stuff, you gotta buy some tools, you gotta practice a bunch, but your kid could do that.

Photography led the way, because it became obvious in the late 19th century that we were entering a world in which your kid can do that, which forced the Art Community to re-evaluate what Art might be. While it was once an undifferentiated cloud of decor, design, ideas, technique, and probably some other things, it became clear that the word needed some refinement.

If we refuse to admit any difference between one complicated object and another, then the amount of Art that's all basically the same becomes intractable.

It was clear, though, that this stuff isn't all the same. Some of it is, in meaningful ways, "better", and it was decided more or less by consensus that what made it "better" was something about design and something about ideas. And so we get Duchamp and his fountain, and so on, experimenting with ways to separate decor, technique, design, idea, and whatever other factors there are.

It doesn't mean that your intricate mobile isn't art, it doesn't mean that you're collection of quilts (170 hours of work each) isn't art. They are. But if they contain neither innovative design nor ideas, then they are different from work that does contain innovative design and ideas. And, to be blunt, if they lack these things they are rather commonplace. Mankind has a great deal of leisure these days, this sort of thing is being cranked out by the trainload.

What we rather dismissively call "craft" these days isn't awful, craftsmen are not bad people. What they are is relatively common. Your kid, if possessed of average dexterity and a moderate will, can become a craftsman. And perhaps your kid ought to, there is great joy to be had in fine craft. I endorse it!

Ideas, on the other hand, remain relatively rare, and therefore valuable. Your kid can't do that, or at any rate it is by no means certain that your kid can.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Political Crit, Political Art

I've run across a couple of reviews of some show that's going on in London, some fellow named Richard Mosse has a video + pictures show called "Incoming" which is something about taking pictures of refugees with "military grade thermal cameras" a phrase I find fascinating. In this modern world, "military grade" often means "pretty crappy, but indestructible." But that's a side note.

Mosse is pretty clearly, based on the various quotations, playing the usual Art School game of Take a Thing and use it Backwards, and look how cool. Maybe he has some point to make, maybe he doesn't. There's no way that I have run across to know. I have not, I confess, looked very hard. I'm a lot more interested in Mosse's would-be critics than I am in Mosse.

This is because the reviewers, the so-called critics, are more interested in fetishing Mosse's process, and trotting out endless vaguely relevant citations. Much of the modern review style seems to be derived from the New Yorker, in which reviews are actually little essays about the reviewer, and how clever he or she is. The reviewer flaunts his or her own erudition, and salts in a liberal serving of New York City is Awesome. The subject of the review is mention in passing, and purely as a jumping off point. The only good thing I have to say about the work of Duncan Wooldridge and Lewis Bush is that they left New York out of it.

In Mosse's case, the game seems to be to wonder aloud if his process (the thermal camera) dehumanizes the subjects, or if it is the very act of photography which does that, and then you chuck in a bunch of subordinate clauses about, of course, we need to consider in the light of geopolitical whatsits, so you sound clever. Admire for instance, this bad boy of a sentence, selected by searching for "of course" in Duncan's essay, and picking the most egregious sample that turned up. The phrase "of course" is used in these things to lend gravitas to nonsense statements, and fluff up the word count.

The dehumanising of the body is of course continuous with the technology and operations of the state, which we understand as intermittently picking out and targeting the human subject with reasons that power justifies under the rhetorics of the war on terror, national security, and as Eyal Weizman has recognised, the chilling but pervasive moral logic of the ‘lesser evil’.

To be honest, I don't even know what the hell "continuous with" even means in this context, and I am pretty sure the author doesn't either. It goes without saying that Eyal Weizman is mentioned nowhere else in the piece. The other "rhetorics" despite being equally generic do not seem to rate some random citation. Also it's not clear at all that "dehumanizing the body" is what he means. After all, by referring to people as "the body" he's kind of already doing that. He means "dehumanizing people."

Let's suppose that by "continuous with" the author means something like "part and parcel of" or less idiomatically "an essential part of, built right in to". The author is then tying the "dehumanizing of the body" in as an essential part of the technology and operations of the state which includes rather a lot. Even the worst of states do many many things. Does the author mean "dehumanizing the body is an essential part of dental checkups for little kids" which is, in many states, part of their operations? No, of course not. The author means a very specific subset of the "technology and operations" and when he clarifies it, the "technology" drops right out.

The next sentence, clumsily grafted on with commas, tells us what he actually means by his enormous blanket term: intermittently picking out and targeting the human subject, justified by the war on terror, national security, and the moral logic of the ‘lesser evil’. The three "rhetorics" are actually the same one three times, in this modern era, so the author is again flapping his gums to make himself look clever. Note the complete lack of technology here, this is all operations.

So I think we can, roughly at any rate, squish this mess down to: Dehumanizing people is part of how the state gets away with killing them in the name of the war on terror. This, while true, is not exactly something most of us need to a refresher on.

Our old friend from the now defunct disphotic, Lewis Bush, has an equally sophomoric review, with many of the same pseudo-intellectual tics that lead to unreadabilty. We do learn that worldpressphoto employs copy editors, because Lewis's irritating tic of mixing up "it's" and "its" is absent (praise I regret I cannot lend to the other review, which botches it at least once).

So what's the problem, anyways?

In neither of these reviews do we see any actual criticism. These are both little platforms for the dunderheaded authors to pound their own little drums. Both reviewers are sure to let us know that they think the modern state is Just Awful. Both are sure to let us know that they are well read, and have thought a lot about photography. On the subject under review, though...

Is Mosse trying to say something? God knows, perhaps, but Duncan and Lewis don't. And, more to the point, they don't care. How did Duncan and Lewis actually react to the installation? Did it make them think? In a way yes, but mainly it made them think of clever things they could say about using thermal cameras. There's no evidence that either one of them actually looked at the pictures or videos in anything but passing. Glance at a couple of things, scribble some quick notes, and then move on to how we can best work in a references to the book I leafed through the other day.

Do I think Mosse has anything to say? I dunno. Maybe not.

In which case I'd like to know that. "Richard Mosse's recent installation and book Incoming while a potentially interesting re-tasking of military hardware to new uses, does not actually seem to have anything to say. It is not clear that Richard Mosse has any point whatsoever." might make a nice review in that case.

Or, if he's got some point of view, something to say, other than "gosh, refugees. So sad." then tell me what that is. Come on, guys, it's not that hard.

But you've got to actually look at the pictures and watch the videos, which I admit is rather a bore.

Anyways, onwards to Political Art, now that I've had my fun with the Political Crit end of things.

Altogether too much Political Art seems to be about raising consciousness and socially positioning the artist. Some terrible issue that we already know about is dragged out for us, and shown to be terrible. The artist is positioned to be against the terrible thing, and, generally, to blame whatever it is that all the other fatuous lefties blame for the problem. Often, the nebulous "state" is the target. And then we're done! Hurray!

This is wildly stupid.

Full disclosure: I am a fatuous leftie, and my default position is that it's all The State's Fault too. These idiots are actually right, but they're right in a way that accomplishes nothing.

Let us suppose that I am Richard Mosse and I think the refugee problem confronting Europe is terrible. If I am lazy, I can pretty much execute the above program, and I am done. Let us suppose, though, that I have ambitions to actually address the problem. What can I do?

Step one is to work out some clear and potentially achievable goal. In general I will want to change hearts and minds. Perhaps I want to influence a specific vote, perhaps I want to support funding for some program, or class of programs. Perhaps I simply want to reduce prejudice and create open conversation. No matter what, it's likely to come back to changing hearts and minds.

Who's attitude and/or opinion do I want to influence, and in what direction do I want to alter it?

I say hearts and minds deliberately. You've got to hit both. All the rational discourse in the world won't change anything, unless your target can feel it, and if they can feel it they still want a rational reason to change.

Step two is to work up something artlike to speak to the mind. Give them a rational reason to support such-and-such an idea, give them a reason to think it'll make things better. Show them former refugees working hard at difficult jobs, and cite them some statistics about economic growth. You art should specifically speak to the audience you have in mind. If you're trying to influence businesspeople, tell them about money. If you're trying to influence working people, tell them about jobs.

Step three is to work up something artlike to speak to the heart. Show them some little kids before, and after their parents get jobs. Tell them some personal stories of desperate flight, of rescue, of success, of gratitude to the host nation. Again, target the audience.

Step four is to blend the two into a coherent whole.

It doesn't even have to be true, although obviously I disapprove if it's not. I've just detailed how propaganda actually works, and it doesn't work through extensive use of subordinate clauses and the phrase "of course", it works as described in my handy 4 step guide. You might say that propaganda is terrible, but I say that propaganda is, for my purposes here, nothing more or less than political art that works. The alternative is political art that doesn't work.

To be blunt, I cannot see how Mosse could possibly be on the right track. By showing us refugees with freakly thermal imaging, he cannot possibly be shaping the hearts of the audience in positive ways. Creepy alien creatures are coming for us! Fuck! Run! is pretty much the normal gut reaction to the stills I've seen. Perhaps Mosse wants to influence people to support carpet bombing the refugee camps, though.

Anyways, I don't know whether political art is shittier than political art criticism these days, or vice versa, but I think they both tend toward the awful. At least in the Art School world, and the other spheres that revolve around it. There are surely people beavering away in isolation doing something better. Me, for instance.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Some African Photos

I present to you two bodies of work from Africa! Taken, in both cases, by white Africans. Obviously white people can be Africans, that's not my point at all. I think it's pretty likely that I share more cultural touchstones with these artists than I do with, say, Peter Magubane, with whom in turn I suspect I share more than I do with many other African photographers.

Both bodies of work are the sort of thing which, I regret to say, we see too goddamned much of from Africa, especially from white artists. Both are pieces of the "Africa is so poor and screwed up" narrative, and neither one offers any solutions. That said, I like one of them, and I dislike the other. This might be simple prejudice on my part, or perhaps I can make a case. Let's see!

First up we have the Greylingstad series from John Barrow, who shared the link in a comment a few items back. Thanks, John! It's a pretty effective body of work, essentially documentary but with some real visual appeal. John provides us with a lot of background, without thrusting a large bolus of words upon us. We always know what we're looking at; we're never swamped in text.

It is a familiar story to us in the USA, the small town passed by and slowly sliding back into the earth. It is a familiar story, but with a decidedly not-USA flavor. Notably, there are photographs of what appeared to me to be distinctly derelict businesses, a shoe repair shop that was obviously long defunct. And then, weirdly, another one. But no, they're the same one, with a paint job and an expansion between photos. At the time the photos were taken the shop was very much a going concern.

What to me were clear "tells" of a long-closed shop were in fact merely the indications of a business being run on a very small budget. Africa versus the USA. Without the text, I wouldn't have noticed this.

The second body of work appeared on PetaPixel, here or you can find what I think is identical material (less one picture, I think, but with the artist's statement more clearly demarcated) on the artist's web site here.

This is a substantially more enigmatic collection. Much smaller, for one thing, and much more "obvious" in the sense that photographing hard-luck cases is a well mined out area of photography. We're looking at street kids, 13 (14 on Petapixel) photographs, giving some depth. We see kids having fun, kids of various ages. We see what it presumably a pile of trash of the sort the kids pick through, we see light through trees for no reason I can discern (is the foreground fog coming off a trash pile?). We see a few pictures of kids looking impoverished, but weirdly enough the kids seem to be surprisingly well dressed. Their clothes, while neither sterile nor new, often appear fairly clean and in decent repair. My kids are often dressed more shabbily.

While the artist's text paints a grim, and no doubt accurate, picture, I find her photographs to almost contradict the text. There are three or four pictures in which the kids look particularly impoverished, at best. In some of those they could simply be sleepy.

While I applaud Jern's desire to show us depth, to show us that these children are more than miserable cases for charity, I'm not sure she's succeeded even in that. The collection is too sparse, too open to question.

Where do these kids come from? Are they orphans? Kicked out of the house? Runaways? Where do they go when they grow up? Why do these particular children all look essentially healthy, is that an illusion, or are they in fact oddly healthy and neatly dressed?

The question I have to ask myself here is Is there something inherently African, inherently Kenyan, which I am missing and which would unlock this puzzle? Or is this just a kind of lousy little portfolio?

Without the text, I would assume that most of these pictures were not of homeless kids. I would assume that there were a few pictures of homeless kids, a few pictures of children who were substantially better off, and a picture of some attractive trees with the sun piercing the leaves.

More importantly, though, I think that Jern is explicitly political and yet offers no guidance to the viewer. This is a terrible state of affairs she seems to say, but while she implicitly demands that I take note, she gives me no guidance as to what I might do. In contrast, Barrow is not trying to make any political statement, as far as I can see. He seems to be saying that Greylingstad is simply something that happens and, while sad, there's not much to be done about it.

If I am prejudiced against Jern, and I probably am, it is because I am sick to death of having my consciousness raised and then left to dangle. Educating me, or really anyone, on the point of the world has some terrible things in it is beside the point these days. How many more times must I be told this before someone gives me a tactic I can use to actually do something to make the world less terrible? Or is it hopeless? If it's hopeless, why don't we just say so, rather than willfully trying to stimulate my in-built guilt to no apparent purpose?

Monday, April 24, 2017

Video Isn't Photography

Or, if you prefer, Still Photography isn't the same thing as Motion Photography. I don't care much how we name the things, I care that we stop muddling them together.

There is a depressing tendency to treat these two under more or less the same umbrella, to suppose that motion photography and still photography are more or less two variants of the same thing, or that one is a special case of the other, or whatever. Anyone who does one can probably do the other, and (especially) a critic of one ought to be able to criticize the other just about as well. The skills in various cases should pretty much translate straight across.

Technically, sure. The equipment used to make these things is similar, and shares some of the same technical details. They are 2 dimensional, visual.. I am running out of similarities.

In every other way, they have almost nothing to do with one another. Still photography more resembles painting than it does motion photography. You could make a case that it more closely resembles sculpture than it does motion photography.

Consider the differences between still photography and motion.

They are made completely differently. In one case you are looking for (and recording) one or more instants, and in the other you are looking for (and recording) stretches of time. This changes how you manage the set and the people (if any) on it, how you move, how you hold the camera, how you light. Let us set aside entirely the considerations of sound, although sound is hugely important in modern motion photography.

They are consumed completely differently. A photograph is consumed on my schedule, a video on yours. This is an oft-overlooked difference, and it is huge. Just sit and ponder that for a moment. I can look at a picture for a moment or an hour, if I like. A video I cannot. I can pause it, repeat it, rewind a bit, perhaps play it again in slow motion, but ultimately one frame will follow the next more or less on the artist's schedule, or the piece won't make any sense.

They behave completely differently. A photograph (or painting, or sculpture) represents a single moment, a facet, a single slice of something. A group of them represents several slices. The work demands that the viewer construct whatever it is that these are supposed to fit in to. Video gives us that world, still constrained visually, but not temporally. You can argue that film is just a whole bunch of slices, but you are being facetious and you know it. The perception of video is of continuous time, that's the point, and as such it's different.

Roland Barthes was a bloviating idiot, but he got this part right. Motion photography is almost completely unrelated to still photography.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Contextualization, Wot? Wot?

I'm still gnawing on how to map out a "new criticism" (which, if my record remains consistent, will turn out to be roughly the same as the "new criticism c. 1974"). As noted ad nauseum I'm pretty sure that the right way to think about pictures is (now) as collections, portfolios, what have you. Campion's essay, noted earlier, talked about what he calls narrative, what Keith Smith calls sequence and which I call, more or less, photography that isn't shitty.

I'm being unfair, of course. I can think of at least one form that's not shitty that's also none of these things, and that is the typology. Increasingly I am running in to things which read a bit like a typology and a bit like a sequence, which is dangerous territory to be mucking about it.

I think a program for criticism of photograph has to acknowledge several things.

  • Context matters, we need to be open to it. Expecting the viewer to simply read it in the pictures is wrong-headed.
  • It is the body of work which matters, not the individual frame.
  • Specifically what matters is what happens when the viewer looks, carefully, at picture after picture, with the right context in mind.

Context matters, we need to be open to it. Expecting the viewer to simply read it in the pictures is wrong-headed.

This is, I think, sort of obvious, and yet we see a lot of denigration of the mixing of text with pictures. The conceit that one should be able to "just look at the images" and understand what is there. The conceit is that the "images" (and it is always the "images" never the pictures, never the snaps, never the photos) should be strong enough. This is to literally build in cultural bias. The only way the "images" can be strong enough is if they're coded to the culture of the viewer.

If you're going to make sense of extra-cultural work you're going to have to do some reading, you're going to have to have someone help you out with the underlying cultural referents. And, realistically, if you're going to understand anything interesting, you're going to want a few words, a caption or two, to point the way.

Pictures don't mean anything unless you've got a mental model to plug them in to, to fill in the world the individual frames were snapped from.

It is the body of work which matters, not the individual frame.

This is the little drum I have been beating for ages. In this day and age the individual rock star photo, the "gem" photo, is altogether too easy to make, even by accident. It always was easier than we admitted, and now it's not very hard at all. At the same time, photography's ambition has expanded. In order to encompass meaning, as well as simply to demonstrate that the work isn't an accident, the photographer simply has to be able to build up a body of work. A narrative, a typology, whatever. Something meatier and bigger. The greatest hits monograph deserves its miserable death, it was a relic of times past.

Specifically what matters is what happens when the viewer looks, carefully, at picture after picture, with the right context in mind.

This is simply a consequence of the first two. What photography is, what it should be, and the way we should judge it, as how the body of work functions as a collective object, with the appropriate context held in mind.

A single picture carries too little meaning, and might be simply an accident. Therefore we must look at many pictures. To understand any one of them, and to understand the relationships between them, we must understand something of what is in the pictures, what bits are important and which are not.

A portfolio of portraits of Mennonites would be rife with coded meaning. Is the fabric a print or solid? Buttons or hook-and-eye? Hats? Beards? All this stuff contains information about subject's sect. To even know what items code meaning, and which ones are irrelevant, you have to have a bit of background. If you're African, it's possible that none of it means anything to you. Does the brick wall in the background mean more or less than the trim of the man's beard?

If I am trying to make some statement about Mennonites, you'd have no hope of grasping it without some background. Let's suppose that I like the hook-and-eye folk, and make sympathetic pictures of them, while the button-folk less so. You might well glean that I prefer brick backgrounds, if I happened to mostly shoot the first group outside a brick building and the latter in front of a clapboard wall.

Similarly, a portfolio of photos of a smallish but diverse collection of people from various sub-sects of some non-Christian African sect would carry no meaning for me, although obviously I could identify myriad minor differences between one picture and the next.

This all argues, I think, for the acceptance of artist supplied text, background. In many cases, the more the merrier. Do you want to communicate globally? Best to write a fair bit.

Conversely, though, the context must serve the pictures rather than the other way around. If the pictures merely illustrate some text, then we're not really looking at photography but rather an illustrated essay. If the pictures are just a random jumble of bullshit stuck up next to a boring essay of Arty Bollocks, even less so. This is why it's phrased:

Specifically what matters is what happens when the viewer looks, carefully, at picture after picture, with the right context in mind.

Rather than:

Specifically what matters is what happens when the viewer reads the artist's statement, carefully, with the pictures in mind.

The latter is, at best, the work of an essayist, and at worst the work of a bullshitter who will never, ever, be repped by Gagosian. Although he or she might get some glowing reviews from Internet Intellectuals.

And this, just to wrap up a thought started at the beginning, is why the difficulty with that zone between the typology and the sequence. The typology simply shows us the same sort of thing over and over again with the simple insistence, the demand, that this is interesting. It challenges the viewer to construct meaning from the tiny differences. The sequence celebrates the differences, and arranges the pictures in such a way, ideally, as to help us identify which differences matter.

By going someplace in the middle, the risk arises that you're simply being lazy. Are you making a soup, a sandwich, or an incomprehensible mess? Usually the latter, it turns out, and then the artist tries to patch it with an messier artist's statement.

Anyways, snarkiness aside, the photography critic's job has to be something like this, then.

The photography critic must start from the relevant context, reading whatever the artist has supplied as well as rummaging around to whatever degree seems reasonable to fill in the necessary background information. The pictures then must be viewed, and judged, within that context. What meaning do the pictures carry, after we understand sufficient of the surrounding context? How well do the pictures carry that meaning?

As a secondary concern, how well does the surrounding material supplied with the pictures work? How well does the artist elucidate the necessary background?

And finally, how accessible is the work to the expected readers of this bit of criticism? Will the artist's statement suffice for us or is more needed? Is the artists's statement even on point, or is it a distraction?

The judgement of the critic then assumes a new possible dimension. Work can be good, it can be bad, and it can be incomprehensible. It is, ultimately, perfectly reasonable for the critic to simply admit defeat in the face of a too-high cultural barrier, with the expectation that many of the readers of the criticism might find the wall similarly insurmountable. If we wish to be open to extra-cultural work, I think we need to be willing to admit defeat from time to time.

Ideally, some later, wiser, more educated critic might make some sense of the work for us.

Worth Reading: Darren Campion

This is a new fellow I have run across. He writes interestingly about photography, somewhat in the same vein I do. Of course, I think he's too wordy (whereas I am Just Right) and I think he pushes a trifle too far into Arty Bollocks territory (ibid. as it were).

He's written a two part essay which I think is worth a read. On Narrative I and On Narrative II.

I think some references to musical structure would have served him well, and we continue to see the trend of everyone and their dog inventing new meanings for "series" and "sequence" respectively. But stick with it, if this sort of thing interests you.

He also seems to do long form book reviews. Well, at least one, I have yet to dig very far into his archives.