Monday, April 24, 2017

Video Isn't Photography

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

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

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

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

Consider the differences between still photography and motion.

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Contextualization, Wot? Wot?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rather than:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worth Reading: Darren Campion

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 20, 2017

A Note on Salgado's Genesis

Inspired by this "book review" from Ming (how can you review a photography monograph without talking about the pictures?) I decided to go look at Genesis to see if Ming's complaint about too many pictures is right.

In a way it is. There's a hell of a lot of pictures in this thing. Lots of repetition, in a sense. It just goes on and on.

If we suppose that Salgado has some idea about what he's doing, we wonder if there is a reason for this, and after a moment it comes to us. He's showing us the world, or at any rate a good sample of it. The world, it turns out, is big, and contains a lot of things. Salgado's point is that there are a hell of a lot of pictures in this book, but at the same time not nearly enough. It comes home to us, if we're paying attention, that he is in fact showing us the thinnest sliver. A half-dozen or so tribes of more or less pristine peoples. A whole lot of penguins, but not nearly all of them. A few pieces of ice. A selection of rivers, mesas, valleys, plains. And so on.

There's an enormous amount of material spanning the globe, and it all looks similar, and yet subtly different, and it's all just a tiny slice in the end. Primitive tribes look a lot alike, massed animals look a lot alike. Land looks similar to other land, water looks similar to other water. And yet, everywhere you go, there are differences. This tribe's men wrap their penis this way, the other tribe's another, and this lot lives in cold places so they cover up.

There are elements in here of The Family of Man, in the effort to simply catalog a lot of material. The two shows would work very well together. And would be inconceivably vast for the instagram generation, nobody under 40 would make it through alive.

The power of repetition and bulk to make a point. It would not have occurred to me, possibly because I would never have the will to take so many pictures.

Notably, a lot of the pictures don't really look like Salgado. There's a ton of purely documentary material, and a surprising number of pictures in which the subject is largely lost against the background (which, I assume, is again the point -- in the real world leopards and native peoples are often making a bit of an effort not to stand out, so the figure-to-ground trope of two-dimensional art is in fact wrong).

I will go so far as to say that this isn't a monograph in the traditional sense. There's simply not enough visual connective tissue. While the book flows, and pictures do relate visually to one another, there is so much visual variety that the cohesiveness the book has is largely not visual. It's conceptual. This group of ten landscapes flows, but then we're in to a bunch of documentary of a tribe (which also flows) and then we're on to massed penguins, and so on. The concept hooks it all together beautifully, but the graphical connections we expect from a monograph are confined to short sequences within the book.

Anyways. Not a review. A review would be quite large, I think, and you'd still have to pick one angle of attack or another of many possibilities. I had 30 minutes to deploy my "contemplative" method, and that's what came out. A couple of notes, and an overall flavor.

It's a good book, but not one I would choose to own. It's simply too big, and the point it's making isn't worth the space. To me. Your mileage, as the say, may vary.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Poncy Title

I want to write something about criticism, and the natural title here would be something like "Toward a New Criticism" but I almost choked to death on my own bile trying to write that, so, nope. Anyways, here is another quote from Jörg Colberg of Conscientious Photo Magazine, from this piece:

In addition, the problems with the current add-on approach becomes vastly bigger once we’re dealing with artists outside of the larger context of Western culture, for whom the likes of Walker Evans or William Eggleston often are simply completely useless reference points.

I don’t write much about the history of photography, so I might have to leave the job of re-framing the discussion to others. I do realize, though, that what I’m asking for is both a revision of the history of photography and institutional critique of its writing at the same time. That’s a lot to ask for.

I am going to construe this broadly as a request for someone, for the academy, to produce a new model of criticism for photography. As I have mentioned before, I think I am whittling away on that in my own small way, but for the moment I want to poke at the "outside the larger context of Western culture" elements a little. I think Jörg is right that this is a problem. I am spending some time explicitly looking outside the west for photography, and I am finding it... interesting.

Let's start with cphmag's most recent piece. Margo Ovcharenko is a Russian photographer that Jörg interviewed. To my eye, she takes the same boring shit every western art student shoots. Gratuitously naked pictures of her friends looking every-so-languidly bored. A bit like Ren Hang, but with less graphic design and without a shred of humor. She mouths the usual shit about how a portrait really contains the photographer and the viewer as well, and how her work is political, and how she spends a lot of time looking at Constructivist Art and so on. There's no evidence I can discern that she has a single visual idea, or anything whatever to say. "Being queer is super hard, here's some pictures of naked queer people" and so on. Being queer is super hard, but it's not clear how random photos of naked gloomy queer people is relevant.

But step back a little. I have spent enough time with Russians to know that politics means something quite different to a Russian than it does to me. Something largely incomprehensible, and infinitely depressing, although they seem to roll with it OK. It is possible, I have to admit, that Ovcharenko is in fact making clear political statements that I am simply missing. Does the pattern of that tattoo mean something? Does the dress on the wall immediately jump out to the Russian as meaningful, or is it just a dress? Ditto the giant book.

I don't know. Given the "tells" in Ovcharenko's blather, I suspect the answer is "no" and that she is in fact a privileged child, fully engaged with the western student ideas of modern art. But I don't know and further more I can't know without spending a decade in Russia. At least.

Let's take a trip to Africa. Russia has long been connected to European culture, although never quite of it, and so perhaps there's more commonality. Africa is a different story, and not a story I care to start trying to tell, not least because I would botch it. Here's a picture from this set of pictures, "The Wall of Men":


What can I say about it? It's striking. It's not a typical western picture of Africa (which is all fat dictators, starving children, people in brightly colored tribal dress posing for the camera, and elephants). I like it.

But what does it mean? I have no idea. I can make no sense of anything. The face paint? The ... is that a broken bowl? the shell of a huge nut? What about the light flowing from it? The picture seems to be called The Ash, which doesn't help me at all. Maybe none of it means anything specific, but perhaps every aspect of this picture is rife with meaning for someone from the right region of Africa. I don't know and further more I can't know without spending a decade in the right part of Africa. At least.

Here's another picture, from Desta for Africa Creative Consulting (DFA). Their Photography link has a bunch of work that is dictinctly non-European/American, quite striking, and again not at all what the west thinks about Africa:


This is a picture that certainly could have been taken almost anywhere. Chickens, flip-flops, plastic objects are global. But what does it mean? In the USA this would almost certainly be some sort of vision of poverty. We're left with the idea of a chicken inside a human habitation, someplace you would take your shoes off. In the USA, this probably means The Deep South and it probably means Poverty.

What does it mean in Ethiopia? I have no idea. Maybe it means exactly the same thing, maybe it's just an attractive picture of normal home life, or an obvious reference to a specific kind of a religious structure/context. I don't know and I can't know with putting in the time.

What I mean, throughout, of course, is that while someone could explain one picture or another to me in a few minutes, or possibly even seconds (err, yeah, that doesn't mean anything in Ethiopia either is always possible), I cannot gain facility with understanding pictures in general without being steeped in the culture.

If Jörg Colberg is asking Westerners to criticize pictures made globally, it's a fool's errand. So let's assume that's not what he's asking.

What he's specifically asking for is a framework which allows, which embraces and welcomes, which includes, international work. Perhaps, then, what he's asking for is simply room for critics from other nations to tell us about their pictures. In the west we usually don't see pictures of Africa made by Africans. When we do, it's probably just a packet of pictures thrown, as it were, over the wall. We have no context. In order to make any sense of these things we actually need to see some criticism, that is a large part of what criticism is supposed to do after all.

I cannot control what the western press publishes. I cannot control what African critics (or Japanese critics, or Bangladeshi critics, or... ) write, nor can I control how their writing is disseminated. I can control one thing, though.

I can write as if my readers were international. I can be, for the western outpost, what I so want from the non-western outposts of culture. I'm going to try, anyways, to write more as if my reader didn't have those cultural referents. As much. I hope it doesn't make me too boring.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Practice of Contemplative Monograph Reading

I decided to try an experiment, based on the ideas of Miksang which I talked about here.

I don't know about you, but for me going through a photography monograph can be a bit of a chore. A pleasant one, but nonetheless a chore. I try to discern the overall "logic" of the book, struggle with what the artist is "going for" and so on. There is the inevitable repetition to drive points home. I'm always looking for the ways one picture related to another, and so on. I do it because it's worth it, because I am deeply interested in these things.

Last night I picked up American Photographs with the intent of using the Miksang approach to seeing the world on the book.

Calm the mind, relax. Open yourself.

Leaf through the book at the relaxed pace of the flâneur, letting the eyes roam gently, freely.

Take each picture in, gently, easily.

When something catches your eye, specifically, "put in the clutch" or "stop pedaling" and mentally coast, still looking.

Without naming things, without analyzing, let the vision roam over whatever it is that caught the eye, and then outward across the frame.

When you're done, move on to the next picture.

First and foremost, it was a very enjoyable experience. There was still discipline involved. Aha, his white hat caught my eye, he looks shifty and... stop it! Stop naming things and just look! but the experience was more relaxed than my usual studious approach.

While I am not really sure, I suspect that the end impression is similar to that produced by a close reading. A lot of details get lost, perhaps? At the end, I think I will know what I saw, but I am less likely to know why.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Coffee, Wine, and Art: Redux

Commenter Nigli, who knows a thing or two about it, has corrected me on a few points regarding wine and the tasting of it. In hindsight, I see I said some pretty idiotic things. Thanks Nigli!

It's obvious to anyone who is thinking clearly, i.e. not me, that there are things you can legitimately taste in wine (coffee, etc). This wine is bitter. Even a clod like me has experienced this bottle of wine is more something-or-other than the last bottle we opened. Some of this is, perhaps, suggestion. I am not immune to the fact that one bottle says Chianti and the other Syrah, but still, there is obviously something there.

Equally obviously, some people taste in detail than others, and furthermore these things can be enhanced by training and practice. Nigli mentioned a number of chemicals which are important, and which it is literally his job to taste. I believe him!

Translating this to Art, in particular photography, there are obviously things any clod can see. This picture is darker than that one and the like. There are things that more perceptive people and people with different backgrounds will note that other people will not. Things like this picture resembles that picture Diane Arbus took for example.

Still, the power of suggestion is quite real. If you dye a white wine red, clods like me will start tasting "red-like" qualities, and sommeliers will get confused. There is no doubt in my mind that one can plant suggestions of flavors that are not objectively present even if that flavor is a tasteable quantity. Can you slide these games past a trained palate? I assume, without evidence, that it depends on the owner of the palate, but that the answer is "sometimes, but sometimes not."

So in terms of flavors, there's stuff that's real in the sense of being objectively present in the beverage in some measureable sense, and that slides over in to stuff that's not real in the same sense. Then there's perceptions of flavors, which are a lot more plastic, a lot more subject to manipulation and suggestion. Obviously if you're perceiving something that's not objectively present, that's manipulation and suggestion at work. I dare say, again without much evidence but with great confidence, that suggestion can manipulate a person's perception of the stuff that actually is objectively present as well.

Now that this has been all muddied up properly, let's get back to the point.

The point is that when you look at Art (or tasting coffee), you're deploying a mental model which is informed by many things. Some of those things are inherent in the Art (or beverage) and some of those things originate elsewhere (the artist's statement, your memories, the text on the bag/bottle). Sometimes these areas overlap. The coffee does have notes of chocolate, because it has high concentrations of this chemical or that, but also because the bag told you so.

Consider these two notions:

Many of Henri Cartier-Bresson's photographs encapsulate a "decisive moment" which means something or other.

"her [Diane Arbus's] true subject was no less than the unique interior lives of those she photographed" -- Szarkowski.

These are both received wisdom. I mean, my God, Szarkowski said the second one! In my opinion, the first one is objectively true, in some sense, and the second is simply idiotic. I do think there's something to Arbus, but Szarkowski mis-identified it. Which is telling. However, I am no less subject to all these factors than anyone else. My opinion is really just a mildly educated and thoughtful guess.

To put it differently, I think there are objective, albeit perceptual, qualities in photographs. I fervently hope that people, in general, in some kind of blinded study would see something extra, something special, in at least some of what we consider the good pictures, the good portfolios, the good work whatever it is. You might consider this obvious, of course there's such a thing as a good photograph, what kind of dunce would even ask the question? Consider, though, that Szarkowski sees one thing in Arbus, and I see quite another (and Germaine Greer agrees with me).

If I am wrong, if the only difference between this picture and that picture is what it's a picture of and how the viewer has been primed, then photography has a problem. It's still not as simple as well it's all just subjective innit, wot? because whatever we do experience it is shared. The problem is that in this case the experience isn't based on the pictures, but on the story surrounding the pictures, which begs the question of what the pictures are for. If so, then it truly is the case that anyone can be a photographer, because photography is, then, truly about the stories we weave around the pictures.

My belief is that the story we weave is hugely important, but it's not the only thing that's important. There's something in the pictures too.