Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Way We See

I despise the notion of "levels of photographer" but I am going to sketch out a sort of a progression anyways. Sorry about that, I hate myself a little right now.

The neophyte with the camera mainly sees the subject. The flower, Aunt Martha, the thing they want to take a picture of. Many camera-carriers happily remain here. These people famously photograph people with trees "growing out of their heads."

After a while, many of the more serious camera owners will read things that tell them about, well, various graphical features. They might notice leading lines, or intersections of lines. The might notice bright spots, shadows, the way the light falls. Most of the rest of the camera carrying community stop right here, slowly stirring around the short list of technical/graphical features they notice and photograph. These folks almost never photograph a person with a head-tree.

Serious photographers who are successful at communicating things, I feel, manage to simultaneously "go beyond" a sack of graphical tricks, and at the same time to return to the naive subject. Of course, I count myself among this sainted number. And, naturally, you as well, gentle reader.

The same applies to looking at photographs. The naive viewer says "what a pretty flower," the more sophisticated camera owner says "tsk, the flower is centered rather than placed on a Rule of Thirds Power Point," and the artist says "what a pretty flower" but in a more thoughtful way.

I think, I like to think because it's the way I do it, that the Serious Artist sees the whole frame of the photograph. They grasp the whole as a collection of forms and tones and lines and colors all in balance, or not, etcetera. And they they see a pretty flower, and the way the picture reveals the pretty flower without clutter (or with clutter, as is fit and meet.) But at the end of the day, it's still the pretty flower.

Saturday, October 7, 2017


This is a prototype of a book project built around an essay, again. So, it's not commentary or criticism, it's my attempt at Art, again

In 1776 some fellows wrote these words, and some other fellows signed the blank space found below them:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Some 13 to 16 years later more words were written and ratified, as follows:

Amendment 1: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment 2: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

These are, of course, some of the central texts of the United States of America. The first is the core of the Declaration of Independence, and the second are the first and second amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Arguably, these are pretty much the only bits of these larger central texts that the average citizen has much familiarity with in these modern times.

I am not much interested in what the authors or signers of these statements might have meant. They are all 200 years dead, their intentions are surely academic. Yes, yes, Jefferson and Washington were terrible assholes. Or not. Whatever. Neither one of them is saying a lot these days.

Nor am I much interested in contemporary legal theories of what these things mean. Not that these are not interesting questions, but they are irrelevant to what I am saying here.

What I am interested in is the cultural impact of these things, how we citizens and residents of the United States, have internalized these words, what we make of them, and how they influence the ways we think and live.

Utterly entrenched in these words is the idea of individual liberty, the right of each of us, one by one, to seek out what it best for us and ours. Entrenched in these words is the idea that the government should at no time and in no way attempt to restrict our individual freedoms, our individual search, our individual labors. Ours is a nation built, the idea goes, on the efforts of individuals. The railroads were built not by Chinese laborers but by titans of industry, working practically alone. The west was won by steely-gazed men with Colt pistols and strong-willed horses.

Still, this freedom and liberty business is a pretty good idea. Empowering the individual to seek out what is best is a good thing. Each of us should feel and be free to pursue our dreams. It is not unhealthy to feel that perhaps without individual striving things might go badly for us. Around the world parents try to imbue their children with these ideals, among others.

These ideas do ignore the group, the tribe, that force that is all-of-us, together. They minimize these ideas, and perhaps that is not so beneficial. The myths of this nation are not quite true, the railroads were built by shared labor, the west won likewise. Most of the large scale success here in the United States was through group effort, through teams of self-effacing (not always willingly) people working as one toward a larger goal, as well as by oppression, exploitation, or elimination of other people, other classes.

Still, I believe firmly in the ideas of individual pursuit of hopes, dreams, success. Up to a point.

With so many millions of us so deeply imbued with these beliefs, there will inevitably be outliers, in all directions. Some few will utterly eschew individuality in favor of the commune. Some few will observe opposite theories. Some few will seek to elevate their own individual liberty above everything and everyone else.

The worst results hold when we fetishize the objects we identify with our Liberty, when we feel that certain objects contain the answer.

The Car

The first world as a whole has embraced the absurdity that is the car. Several tons of steel and plastic, nowadays bristling with computers and cameras and air bags, simply to transport, usually, a single person and a few personal odds and ends from one place to another.

The United States has taken this to some sort of ultimate pinnacle. Our lust for personal liberty has obliterated every other method of getting around, in any practical way. Ask yourself "how would I obtain a pair of socks without using my car?" (of course you'd jump on amazon, tsk, but amazon would use a truck in the end anyways.) In the United States, for most people, that is a virtually intractable problem requiring half a day of bus travel if it is even possible.

We've built a nation around the car. It is, for all practical purposes, impossible to live here without a car. You cannot hold a job, you cannot purchase food and clothing, you cannot obtain medical care, without a car. Certainly there are a few people without cars, who beg rides and use public transit. They are miserable. There are a few places in which walking or bicycling to much of what is necessary is possible, I live in one of them. But mostly, Americans rely on The Car. 95% of American households own a car. And The Car is completely crazy. It costs the average American something like $8000 a year to own a car. This is a crushing burden for all but the best-off of us, and yet we shrug it off as a simple necessity.

Ordinary people cannot imagine going to work by bus, "What if I want to run an errand at lunch?" and so on. Our personal liberty demands the ability to simple go when and where we choose, at any moment. Public transit systems across the nation are dead or on life-support, the country is enmeshed in a web of highways, interchanges, streets, parking lots, gas stations, repair shops, car dealerships, car factories. Trillions of dollars of infrastructure exists so that we can go when and where we want.

The United States sees almost 11 traffic-related fatalities per 100,000 people, per year. We are by no means the worst here, but that is because of our safe cars, safe roads, and fairly thorough enforcement of traffic laws, not because we're not driving the damned things basically all the time.

There's nothing inherently wrong with The Car. Cars are ubiquitous, globally, and in the end they're just a thing we use to move ourselves and our stuff around conveniently.

But. But.

The Car is central to our identity, here in the USA. It represents freedom, it represents our selves. The American passion for Liberty has, to our detriment, caused us to view The Car as the answer to many problems to which it is not necessarily the best one. The Car has cost us, and cost us greatly.

It should not be the answer we treat it as.

The Dollar

Ahhhh, money. Everyone wants it, everyone needs it. Nobody even knows what it is. It's a medium of exchange. It's labor distilled into convenient chits. It's the only known way to efficiently compute solutions to the problem of distributing goods. It's power. It's speech. It's lovely. It's sex.

It's a government plot to control us all.

Money is global, it's not a uniquely American invention. One might argue, though, that it is in America where we have most perfectly distilled the cold pursuit of it against all opposition, against all common sense. America has 5 times as many billionaires as the next nation in line, and our per capita billionaire count is ridiculous.

Money isn't a bad thing, we need it. You cannot run an economy -- in the most basic sense of a system that gets food into the mouths of people, at scale -- without money. The ruthless pursuit of money, on the other hand, is not particularly good for anyone. Not even for the billionaires who are a famously restless and unhappy people.

The trouble is that people in general, and Americans with their infernal pursuit of Liberty more than anyone, sometimes perceive money as the answer. "If only," we imagine, "I could get a million dollars" or a thousand, or a hundred, "then my problems would be solved." More often than not, it isn't true. Money, it is said, cannot buy happiness. Americans, there is no kind way to say it, do not believe that.

Lottery winners are famously less well off 1 or 2 or 3 years after winning, as a class. Billionaires cannot give up the relentless pursuit of more money, far past reason. Men so rich that they cannot purchase more power, more sex, more influence because there simply isn't any more for sale cannot give up the pursuit. Money, in the worst cases, makes heroin look benign, except that the victims are all too often everyone except the addict.

Money should not be the answer we take it for.

The Gun

Whether the second amendment is really about militias, privately owned guns, or donuts does not matter. We have internalized it as a central idea of gun ownership as American. Some deplore it, and some approve it; all agree that it's deeply American. The myths and legends of the American West helped entrench these ideas, our heroes are soldiers, sharpshooters, experts with the rifle or the pistol.

Sergeant Alvin York is famous as the pacifist who became a war hero, because of his skill with guns. A pacifist. They made at least one movie about him.

Guns, guns are just tools. They're things. They're not more dangerous than chainsaws, or cars, or fire, or poison. Wags are fond of saying "guns don't kill people, people do" or sometimes "bullets do" or something.

In a literal way, these things are true, but the deeper truth is that whoever says this is looking for a way to not talk about what it is that kills people. Guns kill people in a lot of ways, but the uniquely American way they kill is enabled by their power as a fetish object. Little kids raised on videos are fascinated with Dad's gun. Unhinged men collect the things and purchase gimmicks to enable them to shoot them more efficiently. The suicidal snuggle their gun, the solution to all of their problems except one.

The trouble arises not with gun use or gun proliferation, it arises when someone gets the idea that the answer is embodied in the gun. Perhaps the answer is to put the gun to his own head, or to shoot his girlfriend, or his dog, or a whole batch of people at a concert. Perhaps the answer is to shoot that cop, or that perp, or that enemy.

In America, The Gun, like The Dollar, and The Car, are sex, power, independence, Liberty.

The Gun, like The Car, and The Dollar, enables me to choose. The Gun enables me to make choices that are denied to people who do not possess The Gun.

In this world there's two kinds of people, my friend. Those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You: dig.

This is baked in to our culture. How often do we think or say "man, if someone would just shoot that guy things would be so much better."

If people would only stop thinking that the gun is a mystical object which can, somehow, make things OK, they'd stop shooting so damn many of one another. The Answer is not to be found in The Car, in The Dollar, or in The Gun. Our Liberty, our Personal Freedom, is surely larger than these fetish objects in which we see such power.

It is true that each of these objects truly does enable choices, each enables a certain kind of Liberty, of Freedom.

Those with loaded guns do not dig, those with running cars do have jobs, those with money make the rules for everyone without it.

These are all terrible ideas, and they're rotten ways to engage in the Pursuit of Happiness.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Reality and Photos

Mike over on ToP asked out loud if photographs look less "real" than they did, which I found a fascinating question from one as erudite as Mike.

It has already been pointed out to him that photographs don't look real no way no how, and he's probably just trained himself to think of the photos from about 1930 to about 1990 as "real looking" which is perfectly right.

That which we perceive, we think of as something like a photograph. In that, we deceive ourselves. What we perceive is in fact a memory, albeit a very recent one, of a visual field recently constructed out of bits and pieces by our big fat brains from a very lousy but deep collection of visual information.

Consider, therefore, memory. We imagine that our memory of Aunt Sally's birthday as a set of mental photographs, more or less. But stop there, freeze it. There's Aunt Sally blowing out the candles on her cake. Who else is there? Bev, Sam, Jane. Who is seated to Sally's right.. Um. Um. Bev? Or was it Sam? Don't you remember, Sam couldn't make it, he wasn't even there.

Memories are nothing like photographs, once we actually peer into one we find a squishy mess that is long on certain types of detail, but surprisingly short of actual visual facts.

Hold that thought while I relate a story.

I once remarked to my father that Lewis Carroll had really done a remarkable job of writing down what it is like to dream, in his Alice adventures. My father replied with his usual insight: yes, the books capture with wonderful accuracy the way we dream after we have read Lewis Carroll.

How I dreamt before I know not, or even if I did, because I heard Alice read aloud before my memories begin.

This begs a similar question. How did we remember things before the photograph?

Did we remember things, or rather fancy we did, as the sort of accurate visual record that resembles a photograph? If so, how on earth did we describe the experience of a visual memory? Did people say things like "my memory of such and such is like a marvelously detailed painting?" I suppose I could do some research, but that sounds exhausting. Is it possible that (our notion of) our visual memory was experienced differently before we had the photograph as a reference idea?

One could go find one of those rare untroubled tribes in the rain forest who have never experienced a photo, and ask, but I hear that sort of thing is frowned on.

ToP Print Sale

The Sale Is Over, I have unlinked the link.

Mike asked nicely (not me specifically, he asked everyone in the world) so I am doing it.

Current print sale going on over at ToP. Gordon Lewis's "Precipitation" available (again) for $155 (includes shipping to Anywhere) printed 8.75x12 on 11x14 paper. I like this picture a lot.

Full disclosure: For about 3 or 4 reasons I can name, I am not buying one. But that doesn't mean you ought not, if it's even remotely your thing, you know that this is the next best thing to free.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Book Design Notes III

Revisit parts I and parts II if you like.

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

The first iteration was basically this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 29, 2017

Novelty and Repetition

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

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

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

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

I think the answer is that it depends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Transgression, Novelty, and Good Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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