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 weebly.com, twitter.com, 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 amolitor@gmail.com 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.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Crit: Sanaz Mazinani

While I was in San Francisco last weekend, I did more than stop in to the Arbus show. I stopped in to SF Camerworks to see whatever they had up, which turned out to be an exhibit of Sanaz Mazinani's work. I apologize in advance, I feel sure that I have mangled the artist's name at least once in what follows.

This work is mixed media, ultimately rendered as a sculptural wall-mounted object. There's a few other things in the show, a chunk of wallpaper she designed around her methods, a sculpture of colored glass and black rods, some window installations. I will ignore these, except to note that they illustrate her capacity to grow, to experiment, to evolve. The main thrust of the show is the collection of pieces I will now discuss.

Initially the works read each as a set of flat planes with an appealing kaleidoscope-esque pattern of colors and shapes on them. The impression is of a peculiarly angular and quite beautiful flower. One might also read into the large shape, sometimes, some flavor of the planarity of modern "stealth" military vehicles, a B-2 bomber or a Zumwalt class destroyer. This is much more likely after some time spent making a closer inspection of the piece.

The attentive and appropriately knowledgeable might immediately notice the deliberate references to Islamic art, which is often non-representational patterned mosaics and the like.





That's the outermost layer, the largest scale.

Stepping closer, it becomes clear that these patterns are built of of repetitions of smaller fragments. Perhaps you notice the American flag, or you realize that the attractive yellow/orange color is actually a tiny explosion repeated, mirrored this way and that, across the panels of the piece. Closer inspection will unpack more imagery. How much is visible depends on the piece, and this is one of the ongoing problems I find with the work, about which more anon.

It becomes clear, especially after inspecting at least a couple of the works, that the underlying pieces of the patterns are photographs, or fragments of photographs. It is, I think, reasonable to assume that in all cases you'll feel that the photographs are essentially military, political, or both in nature. In some of the works the scale is such that the underlying nature of the photographs is obvious, you can make out quite a bit of detail. In other works you can apprehend enough of the detail, a critical mass of detail, with some effort. The details in these fill in gradually as you work out what you're looking at, the abstraction gradually peeling away. In some of the work, the scale is simply too small to make out much of what's going on in the underlying photographs. You can make out, perhaps, a fragment of a flag and you can tell that there is more but you cannot make it out.



The other problem I see is that the provenance of the photographs is often important. Without knowing that one of the more visually incomprehensible pieces is made up of redacted photographs of flag-draped caskets containing the bodies of slain American soldiers, being carried by other soldiers processionally, the dark rectangles in the pattern do not make a lot of sense. The title of the work contains the word "redacted" but doesn't tell the whole story.



The fact that these photos were not available for a time, and then later made available and only in a censored form, matters. It is the key to understanding what the piece is about, and there is no way to deduce it or even, really, feel it, without being told. I had guessed that the flag shapes might represent coffins, but I did not know if the artist had made the shape through the patterning process, or whether it was part of the original underlying photo, and I don't think there was any way to know.

In general, there is a problem is density. Visual density is sometimes too extreme, rendering the finest layer of visual incomprehensible, other times it is too coarse rendering the effect one of a mere collage. Information density is always too great, if you don't know what the underlying pictures are of and what their provenance is, you have no chance of really grasping the meaning of the piece. It will be, at best, an attractive pattern with some largely unknown but obviously political meaning.

Now, I certainly don't oppose the idea of unplumbed depths, of mystery left mysterious. These works are, however, inconsistent in where they leave off, and in my opinion frequently leave too much beyond the pale and unknowable.

I think Ms. Mazinani needs to find a way to fill in, to some degree or another, those unknowns. I know the provenance of the pictures in these works because the immensely nice chap working at SF Camerworks walked with me and told me, but it seems impractical to include him with the work. A brief artist's statement next to the piece would fill the bill for a gallery show of the sort I saw, but that seems clumsy when selling pieces one by one.

Although I found these pieces inside SF Camerworks, and although cameras were involved somewhere in their production, I'm going to go out on a limb and assert that these pieces are emphatically not photography. For a couple of reasons.

First and foremost, a photograph is something one can apprehend in a moment, it is the essence of still photography, it's what makes a photograph a photograph (yes, yes, abstract this, abstract that and so on, I hear you, I'm choosing to ignore you -- bear with me). These are something else, they demand time and study to even begin to make headway on. They're not video, since you approach them on your own schedule, not the artist's. They might be poems. Some photographs are also poems in this sense, in the sense that they unpack, with labor, into a larger structure of meaning. But these aren't photographs.

Second, and secondmost, one could readily substitute political cartoons, brand logos, campaign posters, and Ms. Mazinani's methods and ideas would translate perfectly. The work wouldn't even look different. It is the transformation of underlying material that is itself charged with meaning that makes these objects work.

The fact that these things are not photography begs the natural question "what on earth is Andrew doing writing about it?" and the answer is that Andrew has to write about it to determine that these things aren't photographs. Plus which, they're interesting, whatever they are.

My complaints aside, I find the work fascinating and in many ways excellent. I very much enjoyed the layering of meaning, from the beautiful flowerlike shape, drilling in to the political, the anti-military, leading perhaps to the re-understanding the large shape in terms of a stealth aircraft. The work invites close inspection, it rewards time spent with it. It invites you to stand back, to approach, to stand back again, to reconsider. It's literally trivial to spend 10 minutes with one piece without getting bored which is, let us be honest with ourselves, truly remarkable for a static piece of art.

I do think Ms. Mazinani would be rewarded by a careful consideration of the problems with density. Not to suggest that she needs to pick a singular solution and to stick with it, only that she consider it, and ponder going forward how she can better reward the careful study of her future pieces, how she can help the art viewer fill in the little details that really drive this work.

If these be poems, then a few (perhaps 1, or maybe 2) of them approach doggerel, and a few are simply too densely "written", and several of them are Just Right. More of the Just Right, please!

I think this artist has huge potential. The work is exquisitely collectible. It's right-sized, big without being ostentatious. It's beautiful. It's dense with ideas and meaning. It's just plain fun to be with. And, she has demonstrated that she can produce, she has demonstrated that she can evolve, that she will be able to produce a body of work that is connected, coherent, without being repetitious. Will she "make it"? Well, to an extent she already has, having enjoyed various success here and there. Will she be launched into the stratosphere of, let me pick the first name that comes to mind, Jeff Koons? Beats me! Probably not, luck being what luck is? But the potential is there!

I'd be happy if she did!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Ugh

Here's a piece on Reading the Pictures, which also appears on No Caption Needed, two web sites I have brought up in the past as bastions of pseudo-intellectual wankery.

Let me quote the author's bio:

Robert Hariman is a professor in the department of communication studies at Northwestern University. His publications include No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy, which he co-authored with John L. Lucaites. He and John maintain the blog No Caption Needed, which provides commentary on photojournalism, politics, and culture.

And now let us examine the essay.

Standard rehash of complaints about Trump, standard narrative about social media comma Trump's mastery of, etcetera. Focus on the Trump presidency's lack of transparency. Ok, fair enough, I agree with all of this. It's not exactly deep analysis or interesting at this point, Hariman isn't saying anything that isn't basically part of the standard narrative, simplified form, aimed at 6th graders and up.

Then we get a photograph of some stuff that's on fire, and a paragraph that starts off thus:

"So we get to the photograph above after all. Eye catching, yet mournful: a visual art work of a sort."

Wait, what? How do we get to a photo of, um, I guess it's a camp used by the DAPL protesters, which said protesters (someone?) have set afire for reasons the author does not share with us. "So we get to this photograph" in what way, exactly? Can you show me, if not the path, at least the trailhead? Point in a general direction? Give me a faint clue? Anything? Is it uphill or downhill? No? Ok, then.

Then some discussion of the snowflakes on the lens (obviously written by a non-photographer, the snowflakes are quite clearly not on the lens at all, but falling in front of it) with some blather about how the snowflakes obscure the scene (which they do not, but which seems to be the author's only stab at an actual connection to the anti-Trump rehash) and make the photograph "reflexive" (which they do, if you're a rube who reads them as "on the lens").

And then, just as suddenly we're back to simple-minded analysis of Trump's campaign, photograph long forgotten.

I give this paper an F. This guy is a professor at Northwestern?

Monday, March 13, 2017

Diane Arbus: In the beginning

Diane Arbus is quoted, from time to time, as saying something like a photo is a secret about a secret which is exactly the sort of poncy stuff an arteest might say. But let's see.

The SFMOMA has a show from the MOMA on display now, entitled "in the beginning" which covers a body of Arbus' work that I have not seen before. It turns out that she shot with a 35mm film from the mid 1950s until 1962, when she got a wide angle Rollei, and everything changed. All the iconic pictures seem to be from after 1962. So this show is about the 35mm work, and it definitely provides context.

First, let me remark that the show is hung like shit. It's hung in a maze of identical white rooms, in chronological order but only once you work out what the insane ordering of walls actually is. Walking the work in order is, I think, literally impossible without regular diagonal trips across rooms. I got lost repeatedly. It's ridiculous. And then the show segues into a bunch of larger square pictures, and there's a big gap in the chronology because what you're looking at now is, suddenly, a completely different show. Arbus did a "box of 10 photos" portfolio, which consisted entirely of medium format work. These are, for the most part, the pictures we know about. But the way the show is hung, you don't really notice, or you notice that things are all different, but why? What just happened?

So, it's a mess. Honestly, who the fuck put this thing together?

But anyways, the work. Once you sort out the mess the curators have made, you can get to work and see what's what.

The first thing that strikes me about the 35mm work is how much of it is, from our modern perspective, completely ordinary observational "street" photography that we now know can be ground out by the tonne by anyone with a small camera and the right sort of obsession for mashing the shutter button. People sitting on trains. People standing around. People at the movie theater, etcetera.

This is perhaps a quarter or an eighth of the show. Enough that, in our modern world awash in this garbage, it sticks out.

Half of the show is clearly Arbus finding her way. It's people wearing masks, it's cross-dressers, people with tattoos, circus clowns, circus people, photographs of the movie screen, photographs of people watching the movie, photographs of players backstage. Arbus' obsession with masks and masking, both literal and figurative, is fully in bloom here. She is exploring these ideas, figuring out what works and what does not.

Not all photographs are secrets about secrets, but Arbus' photographs sure as hell are.

We'll circle back to the masks and circus people in a moment.

Another good sized chunk reads as those tedious "street portraits" which people are constantly shooting these days. "Interesting looking" people (freaks, weirdos, overdressed and underdressed people, and so on) shot in a sort of spontaneous portrait style. These I dismissed initially, because again we know now that you can grind this garbage out wholesale. I was, I think, wrong. There's something a little different with Arbus.

What I saw, eventually, was that her "street portraits" are often actually of the moment the victim becomes aware of the camera. The eye contact of the street portrait is there, the awareness, but the victim has not yet formulated a response. It's a fleeting moment when, if you stretch a point slightly, perhaps, the "mask" goes up. The victim sees the camera, the photographer, and assumes an expression. Perhaps a blank stare, perhaps a smile, perhaps an angry stare. It's an opening move, to cover, while the victim decides what to do next. Should I mug for the camera? Tell that woman to stop? Yell at her? Turn away?

My take on it is in fact that Arbus reads this first response as a mask of sorts, and that's precisely what she wants. She's interested in layers that conceal, layers partly but not completely peeled back. The mask covers the eyes but not the mouth; the cross-dresser is bare-chested, and so on. You can peek past the masks, and get at something, but not everything.

Whatever these street portrait-like things are, it's definitely not what happens in the 60 seconds after some smarmy asshole named Eric Kim or Brandon Stanton asks "May I make your portrait?"

Arbus wasn't "making" no damn pictures. She was "taking" in all the senses of the word, make no mistake about it.

Random notes. Arbus liked a good PietĂ , two pictures of parents holding sleeping children appear. She enjoyed the grotesque, giving us a wax museum murder scene, siamese twin fetuses in a jar, an autopsy, a dying old woman. She seems to have had an affinity for children. To my eye the two best pictures she every made were 35mm photographs of children on the street.

The themes she would explore with the medium format rig are all present, but in a vastly more spontaneous way, and in I think a much much stronger way.

When we, wandering through the museum, crash confused into the medium format collection of 10 photographs, mostly from much later, we find a much more formal and stagey flavor. It all feels like a surreal and while not precisely posed, perhaps a little forced. There's still the sense of layering, but it has that Eggleston "the suburbs are actually Hell" flavor rather than the urban grittiness of real people with real layers and real secrets. We know now that the kid with the hand grenade is a scam, she has a whole roll of a perfectly normal kid playing with a toy, and one frame of him making a weird face. The pollutes the rest of the square pictures, I at any rate feel like they're probably all scams.

The 35mm work feels a lot more spontaneous and real. They're also a lot more banal. There is no hint of deep darkness, just the ordinary kind of darkness. With the medium format, one feels that she stopped trying to find masks and mask analogs, and started in creating them. She leaned on the slightly weird look of the wide lens, as well, relying on that look to lend a bit of pop to her efforts to find the surreal in the more or less ordinary.

The 35mm work has some really strong ideas in it, but I think much of what we're being shown is in the spirit of exploration, of testing. A great deal of it looks like random experiments in bullshit. As a body of work it really shows what she's thinking, where she's going, but it doesn't read very well as final product. She kind of needs 100 pictures to get the point across. She seems to have thought that the medium format work was the final product, the distillation of the former work. I think the curators at the MOMA want us to accept this narrative.

I think it is wrong.

I think that the 35mm works shows a lot of ideas, I think she's building up a strong vocabulary, she's exploring ideas and methods that have potential and which from time to time produce some really good stuff. Then she gets a medium format wide angle camera and the wheels fall off, and she becomes Eggleston's antecedent, and that's about it. She wandered off into the weeds of a sort of false notion of masks and masking, started printing big, sold some stuff, and that was pretty much it. Then she killed herself. Well, fuck.

If I were pulling together a box of 10 Arbus photos, I wouldn't have much trouble pulling the best of the lot of out the small camera work. My box of 10, I arrogantly submit, would be a hell of a lot stronger than her box of 10. If you asked me for 20, well, I'd have to salt the box with a few duds. Because the final portfolio never really got made.



Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Fascinating!

This is a very interesting discussion over on ToP, but not in the way you might think.

What we have here is a portrait of Vladimir Putin. What can we say about it, objectively? It's high contrast. The man is apparently making eye contact with the photographer. He appears conscious of being photographed although he appears to be photographed with at least a longish lens so it's not a sure thing. His face appears relaxed. He appears tired, as compared with other photographs, but that may simply be a combination of the light and the relatively high contrast treatment emphasizing "bags" under the eyes. Objectively, it is almost startling in its blankness. The background is vaguely military, but we can't really make out definitively. In the west we might reasonably interpret the head-tilt as a "seriously? You're photographing me?" gesture, but we must accept that a) our cultural referents may be off here, b) Putin may not even have been aware of the camera, and c) even in New York City, this expression is not definitive. It could be Putin's resting face.

Now read the comments. Holy crap.

Consider what we actually know about Putin, as opposed to the various constructs various aspects of various media, variously controlled by various governments. He's ex-KGB, which likely means he's not a particularly nice guy. He went to University. He's old enough to have a career that bridges the USSR's dissolution.

Media constructs paint him as the devil, as a powerful leader, as an assassin, a ruthless killed, a brilliant politician. The west, in particular, resolutely demonizes him, occasionally in ways that are transparent knee-bending to western political interests. (pro-tip: the Crimean adventure is much more complicated than the western press makes out, and it's not actually all that clear that Russia/Putin is in the wrong). The Russian press, which we can observe sort of second hand, seems to be painting him equally improbably, but in the positive. It's certainly possible that he is evil incarnate, or not a nice fellow at all, I don't know. The point is, this is not information that is available to any of us. It is deliberately concealed and obfuscated on all sides.

And yet, confronted with a remarkably bland portrait of the man, a bunch of various westerns are happy to read in, basically, the narrative the media has spoon fed them for the last decade or so. To be blunt, this is ridiculous and naive.

But it is exactly what we do with portraits in particular, and photographs in general. We bring our own massive freight of ideas, our own history, and we project madly onto the picture. A tabula rasa like Turnley's portrait is a wonderful canvas for the careless to project stuff on to, especially when we have such a rich conception of the subject, as we do in this case.

The gap between what's actually in the picture (virtually nothing) and what we think we know about the subject (sufficient material for several long novels) is practically unprecented here, and therefore provides us with a really great case study of how people react to photos.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Why Photographers Don't Get Modern Art

There's this article that popped up on PetaPixel, but originally appeared here on Medium. The author attempts to address the question of why Photographers Don't Get Modern Art. Well, actually, he does not. It sort of seems like he might get there, but I am unable to discern any direct answer to the question.

Still, there are plenty of problems which I think are worth dealing with, and then I'm going to take a crack at the actual question. It's a good question. How is is that photographers, who are essentially makers of contemporary art, so dismissive of contemporary art?

The most obvious issue is that he sets up Modernist Photography in opposition to Pictorialism. Now, Mireles isn't the only person who's done this, but it's still quite wrong. Modernism is a big tent. In fact, I think Modernism is so vague a label as to be virtually meaningless, at any rate I have never been able to make any sense of what it actually is. It appears to be, roughly, a period of time and a list of practitioners, and, maybe, a vague statement of philosophy. Mireles characterization of it as "form follows function" appears to be utterly wrong. That's a practice that allegedly derived from Modernism, specifically in architecture. Modernism, if it is anything, is simply about inventing the new, about creating modernity to replace the old ways.

It is pretty clear that photography, from its beginning, is closely allied with Modernism. It is, after all, profoundly modern at its very core.

The idea correctly set up against Pictorialism is straight photography, and the f.64 group to which Adams belonged was only semi-kinda straight. The f.64 folks were really their own thing, a mish-mash of ideas and methods and themes from all over, largely arranged in opposition to and simultaneously bait for Stieglitz' crew on the east coast. They wanted to separate themselves from the east coasters, as well as to attract their attention and maybe be accepted by Stieglitz, and finally they felt there was something uniquely west coast in their work. Adams, as I have argued in the past, borrowed a great deal from early Pictorialism, Weston was from time to time some sort of ur-Minimalist, and so on. All, clearly, derived from straight photography but largely separated from the Realism that, for instance, Paul Strand seems to have been influenced by (Strand being, in a way, the ur-straight photographer.)

Anyways. Mireles has a plan here, he needs to set up Modernism (or, well, anything it turns out) in opposition to Pictorialism, so that Ansel Adams can that, and so that everyone else can be that too since we're all obviously just Ansel Adams acolytes.

And then it follows, logically, that since we're all Modernists and Modernism is over (replaced initially by the philosophically indistinguishable Post Modernism), we must be stuck in an evolutionary dead end!

Finches are reptiles.
Artistotle is a finch.
Therefore, Aristotle is a reptile

The whole thing is absurd. Photography is not stuck in a dead-end of Ansel Adams imitation. Individual photographers are, certainly. Other individuals are stuck in other dead ends of repeating some other set of tropes over and over. But that's how it goes with artists. Art does not proceed, generally, through the growth and change of individual artists, but by their deaths.

Mireles also takes a good long chunk of words to trot out the tedious notion that contemporary art is inaccessible to all but the anointed few. This is utter nonsense. Anyone with a basic high school education can "get" contemporary art to a degree. While I might not "get" the references to Kafka, I can generally find something to enjoy in a piece of contemporary art. Yes, sometimes I have to read a few lines of text, but it's almost never a "densely written artist statement", it's usually something like this is the carpet from my grandmother's living room or I was inspired by the plight of the Brazilian nickle miners or whatever. One does not expect to "get" every little reference in a novel, but this does not mean that we cannot enjoy the novel, that we cannot feel the greatness of a great one.

What is required to partake of contemporary art is an open mind, an open heart, basic reading ability, and maybe a basic understanding of the larger strokes of the local culture. People who don't "get" art in general lack the first two. To be blunt, these are people who are aggressively trying to not get it, and they are succeeding.

So the question is, really, what is it about photographers that makes them be specifically inclined to belong to the deliberately dunderheaded?

Well. Photographers tend to be technophiles and technocrats. They like gadgets, and they suspect that gadgets and procedures are maybe the answer to most if not all of life's little problems. Photographers love Rules of Composition. They love Photoshop actions. They love 10 Top Tips. It's kind of baked in to the photo enthusiast. It's not that owning a camera makes you a gear nerd, it's that gear nerds are much more likely to buy a camera in the first place. To an extent, amateur photographers are a self-selected group of people who were already crashing bores.

Present company, of course, excluded!

Further, they reinforce it by hanging out together, and their media (vendor/advertising supported) reinforces it as hard as it can. Ideas, concepts, vision, raw creativity are all downplayed. You cannot buy them by the bottle, Canon makes not a cent on these things, and nobody can summarize how to be creative in a 6 minute YouTube video. Perhaps, the technophile amateur photographer secretly hopes, it's not all that important. Perhaps, he reasons, if I can just master how to place the lights to photograph chubbier people, that's just as good. Or better.

Anything which suggests that maybe gadgets, tips, procedures, tools are maybe not capable of producing any answer you desire is looked at, therefore, with suspicion. On the flip side, anything which does use gadgets, tips, procedures, and tools is looked at approvingly. Mastery of tools, that is to say craft, is therefore naturally elevated.

Confronted, therefore, with a piece of contemporary art that exhibits little or no recognizable craft, and which is dense with ideas, the amateur photographer first sees not much that he recognizes as worthwhile, and secondarily perhaps feels slighted, feels a hint of attack on his own ethos.

Certainly I am not claiming this as a blanket diagnosis, it's not that simple. Plenty of non-photographers are bull-headed anti-Art numbskulls, and so surely much of the negativity we see from photographers is just this same bull-headedness all over again. But perhaps what I see as an extra tendency in this direction among amateur photographers can be explained as above.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Photographing The Network

A while I ago I blithely put out some ideas about a notion of "the network" of relationships that one might be able to perceive, and I proposed that this was an interesting thing to ponder while photographing. In the mean time, Russ Lewis has written a somewhat tangentially related piece in which he seems to be arguing that "the network" in my sense, roughly, equals street photography, and is really where photography is best at. This is a slightly radical stance, I think, but I see what he's getting at. Worth a read.

Since then I've had a few opportunities to photograph around and about to specifically work with these ideas "in the field" (gosh does that sound poncy) and I've drafted a piece on the subject for LuLa with some illustrations to be, perhaps, published in the next few weeks (which is most definitely poncy!).

It turns out that this is quite a difficult thing to photograph. It only takes a little effort to perceive the relationships, but committing the idea, that thing you see so clearly, to film (as it were) is not so obvious.

I'm riding a subway. A young man boards, steps across the train car to clear the doorway, and finds himself standing almost next to a beautiful young woman much his own age, engrossed (of course) in her iPhone. She does not look up. I can tell, or guess with fair reliability, that she is carefully remaining glued to her iPhone in part to fend off any attempts at conversation the young man might make. He, in turn, is exquisitely aware of her, is aware of her iPhone gambit, chooses to respects it (good boy), and studiously ignores her. However, he remains where he is, she is visible in his peripheral vision. I feel sure that he's admiring her, while carefully not looking at her. He makes no attempt to engage her but they remain 24 inches apart for another 5-10 minutes, studiously ignoring one another, until I get off the train.

This interaction, and variations on it, happen 10,000 times a day on that train. They'll happen in front of you every few minutes if you ride a subway during moderate usage times. This is one of those relationships that makes up that interesting fabric of urban life.

How do you photograph it? How do you photograph that mildly fraught crackle of tension between two young bodies working hard to create the illusion of no crackle whatsoever?

How do I photograph the way the dew lingers in this spot a little later in the day, which in turn tends to encourage this variety of tiny flower to flourish in this spot rather than a little to the west?

In a way it is the same problem as how shall I photograph the flower so as to reveal its beauty? or how shall I photograph Half Dome to reveal its majesty and the sense of the sublime I feel at this moment? but I think perhaps it is more difficult.

Relationships, between people, between automobiles, between the plants of the forest, are dynamic things. They are revealed over time, through a thousand tiny gestures, through a 1000 repetitions. Any given slice of time appears to be simply a random assemblage. In general, it is the repetition of the nearly random that reveals that a pattern exists.

I have no particular answers here, but I do know that I have seen it done.

With people there are some obvious gimmicks, the sightline, the gesture or movement captured half-completed, the occasional moment of obvious body language, the grimace and the smile. Properly assembled, these can reveal. What of emotion concealed? You have to, I suppose, find the slip-up, the accidental momentary lapse. And you have to photograph it in a way that shows it to be a momentary lapse.

What of that dew and the flower? I have no idea! Do you simply shoot wide to show the moss here but not there, should helpful moss be available to reveal the pattern of dew?

What else?

I do know that inspiration is more likely to strike you if you are consciously aware of what the abstraction is that you intend to shoot. Or, more exactly, if you do not specifically set out to photograph "the network" I do not see how you can possibly manage to accomplish except by blind luck once in a very very great while.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Ren Hang II

I have realized since I made the remarks previous to these that I failed utterly to view Hang's work through the lenses I have so carefully contructed, trame and the idea of "network." So I thought about that.

My first thought was that these pictures are almost astonishing in how little they refer to anything outside the frame. The are fully self contained, each is entirely a little world. My next thought was that they might therefore just as well be paintings. Which leads to my third thought which was good lord there's no way these things could be paintings which leads, tangentially perhaps, into the notion of network.

These pictures are entirely about the situation of being photographed. The subjects are all exquisitely conscious of being photographed, often making direct eye contact, and almost invariably posed very very obviously For The Camera. These things are practically selfies. It is entirely about the fact that there were really one or more actual naked people out there being photographed. As paintings or drawings they would be bad graffiti, at best, and completely different. As a photograph the mildly lurid reality of the set becomes real, it comes home to us.

While I don't think this makes them good as such, because it still seems to be a young man without any ideas beyond twitting the puritans and making visual jokes. But it certainly makes them extremely photographic and goes a long way toward helping us understand the Art World's fascination with the work. These are a powerful expression of the modern selfie-generation photography. These things wouldn't exist without social media, and would make a lot less sense without social media as a backdrop. Even the geometric groupings of naked girls could be, with a bit of stretching, be considered a nod to the standard "6 drunk girls throwing peace signs at a party" picture that infests Facebook and so on.

The intense self-consciousness is, I think, the thing that drives Hang's pictures if anything does. And that, well, I think that's kind of interesting. It certainly separates him from Richardson and his ilk, who seem to be striving for a "oh dear me, I am being photographed, what a surprise" flavor.